I like old Law & Order episodes — there’s a reason why I put the show smack in the middle of my Showroulette pitch — but wasn’t heartbroken when I’d heard that the flagship series was cancelled. (The quirkier, more salacious spinoffs, like “Law & Order: Freaky Sex Crimes Unit,” remain.) The show had been losing its edge for a while, in writing, acting, and even casting. I mean, how are going to cast the judge from The Wire as … a judge on Law & Order? That’s just lazy. At least the guys from The Sopranos didn’t always play mobsters.
A couple of things I’ve seen lately, though, in the wake of the show’s cancellation, suggest that Law & Order wasn’t quite as sharp because the city itself had lost its edge — in a good way, at least for New York (if not procedural dramas). This New York Times article notes how the show helped improve New York’s image to tourists and parvenues (“This Crime Spree Made New York Feel Safe“):
In 1990, when the show made its debut, 2,245 people were murdered in New York (a high-water mark), and several of those victims became emblematic of the haphazard, senseless violence that gripped the city…
[But] as [the detectives] pulled on the threads of the case, a pattern and motive always emerged. Unlike in the real New York, there is almost no pure street crime in “Law & Order.” In a show obsessed with the city’s class structure, you were far more likely to be murdered by your financial adviser than by a drug dealer. Crime has no single cause, the show seemed to argue, but crimes do, and they can be solved one at a time…
Mr. Wolf portrayed a city in which there were no senseless crimes, only crimes that hadn’t yet been made sense of. He took the conventions of the English country murder mystery and tucked them inside the ungovernable city. In so doing, for a national audience, he de-randomized New York violence.
The plunging murder rate has to help too — just 466 homicides in all of New York City in 2009, an all-time low. For a city of almost 9 million people, it’s pretty impressive that fewer people were killed in New York last year than follow me on Twitter. Let’s put it this way — Philadelphia and Baltimore, which also had record-low homicide numbers, together easily beat New York even though the two cities combined have something like half the population of Brooklyn. New York went from one of the most dangerous cities in the country to one of the safest.
The Wire’s David Simon, though, argues that the rising wealth and lowered danger of New York skews New York’s sense of what’s happening in American cities nationwide — and because New York dominates America’s media imagination, that has a disproportionate effect on how we understand what’s happening elsewhere. (Make sure you watch this video to the end, where he gives Law & Order a pop):
Some of this is familiar anti-NYC stuff, particularly from people who 1) live/grew up elsewhere and 2) work in/adjacent to media and publishing. But I think Simon’s bigger point, that the “urban experience” in America has become much more heterogeneous, both within and between cities, is 1) true and 2) has consequences, is really worth paying closer attention to.