When Law & Order’s 20th season in America marked the end of the show in 2010, it entered the record books. Dubbed ‘The Mother Ship’ after spawning several spin-offs, it was a landmark success in long-running drama. The UK version, launching its fourth series this Monday (March 7, 9pm on ITV1), has some way to go to match that run. But if it maintains its current form then anything is possible.
Plots are adapted from the original show’s episodes, and dedicated viewers will either enjoy or begrudge comparing the two. Updates and various other tweaks mean that they are not carbon copies. If you’re unfamiliar with the premise, it’s a clever hybrid of two genres. The first half shows the discovery of a crime (but crucially not the event itself, leaving the viewer in the dark). A police investigation ensues, leading to an arrest before the second ad break. Immediately after, we have the court proceedings leading to a verdict.
The simplicity and self-contained nature of this scenario is one of Law & Order’s key strengths. A brand-new story each week means you get the satisfaction of beginning, middle and end within an hour. Loyal viewers can easily miss a week, but crucially for new viewers you can dip in and not be confused by a complex back-story.
That doesn’t mean that the show is dumbed-down. Armchair detectives need to pay attention right from the start. The plot escalates quickly, with new puzzle pieces constantly being added or discarded, but organically rather than flashily. The core actors have great chemistry together, with Bradley Walsh and the gorgeous Jamie Bamber creating a great cop double act. (Walsh is also far more believable and likeable here than he ever was as Corrie’s Danny Baldwin). There isn’t a weak link among the regular cast, and it’s refreshing to see a procedural show that doesn’t wallow in the main characters’ personal lives.
Law & Order isn’t too macho though, and does an expert job at showing that crime and punishment is still about people. Ordinary people caught up in the system and moral dilemmas are recurring themes. There is no revelling in gore or forensics like certain other shows out there. From a good Samaritan who comes to regret his actions to a High Court judge who becomes a victim (an excellent guest spot from Juliet Stevenson), the emotional payoff at the end always packs a punch.
Fans of mainstream British crime telly may still be mourning the loss of The Bill. But they can also be pleased that ITV is investing in Law & Order UK, which stands on its own merits as a fresh and credible example of the genre.