Ah, the first season of Law & Order. I became a fan of this show in its 5th season, and this episode was re-run one night. This was one of the first of the Ben Stone-era that I ever saw, though offhand I can't quite recall where (perhaps NBC, perhaps A&E). From the opening moments, though, I was hooked and running with the momentum, the show held me rapt in attention for the next 45 minutes. The plot concerns the police investigating potential foul play at a hospital that resulted in a woman's death. The trail eventually leads to a chief cardiologist at the hospital, who is nationally renowned and one of the leading exemplars of his field.
"Prescription for Death" was wisely selected as a premiere episode because of its features. It is not as laden with emotional complexity and controversy as other issues that would be covered in this landmark series. No, comparatively, this is a simpler tale of "the good guy(s) versus the bad guy", but these can be just as riveting and entertaining to watch as well. This episode serves mainly as a strong introduction to the show's central characters, who convey to us the sense that while they are human with their own individual foibles, they are likeable, decent people who conduct their jobs with integrity. We are rooting for their pursuit the entire time. In contrast, the bad guy is clearly a dangerous figure and we heave a sigh of relief when he is finally brought to justice in the end.
The show's trademarks are all apparent here. Right from the start, we get a great teaser in the opening minutes, with a hospital death, the suspicious behaviors of the staff, and the outraged reaction of the dead girl's father (incidentally, played by a pre-white hair'd John Spencer, future star of The West Wing). We get oblique 'leaks' of information about the main characters as the plot moves along--for example, that Greevey and Cragen used to be partners and that Cragen once had a drinking problem. We get the underlying themes of the story conveyed as a dialectic between Greevey and Logan. In this episode, those themes are: to what standards should the medical profession be held to in delivering care? What is the nature of trust and authority in the doctor-patient relationship? The dialogue is, as ever, sharp and alive--loaded with witty retorts, sarcasm, and biting intelligence. And this is countered at the end by another trademark common in the series: the delivering of an abrupt, understated ending that punches the viewer in the stomach with a quiet emotional wallop--the final shot of Greevey's devilish twinkle dissolving slowly into solemn sorrow at Stone's reveal says it all.
And yet, despite being an emotionally 'cleaner' tale relative to other episodes in this groundbreaking series, "Prescription for Death" still manages to tell a sophisticated, complex story. On one level, the show casts a specific critique at the hierarchy and power structure inherent in the U.S. medical system. The doctors working under Auster, almost all of whom come off as more competent than he is, are nonetheless clearly afraid of the influence and power he has accumulated. He has the palpable ability to wreck their future careers, and this is perfectly captured in his stern glance. I showed this episode once to one of my best friends who is a physician, and she immediately related to it. She noted how one of her bosses (a likewise senior, likewise renowned physician) could get absent-minded about certain things from time to time, and while nothing even approaching the level of Auster, she was concerned about his forgetfulness, afraid it might be a liability for her somewhere down the road, and feeling the awkwardness of how to go about broaching this with him, a superior. More globally speaking, however, the characters of Auster and his staff are familiar to us all. We've all had experiences working under the ultra-successful, haughty, or narcissistic boss, one intoxicated by the glow of his/her past successes who no longer believes that he/she can make a mistake. Perhaps we've been in positions where we've had to compromise our own standards working under such a person. In viewing Auster, we get the impression of a once brilliant, industrious physician, whose fatal flaw was that over time--perhaps from the strain of running hospital staff or perhaps from the pressure of the expectations brought about by his prestige--his competence dissolved into mere arrogance and drinking. Though we cannot ultimately excuse the actions of him or the doctors who enabled him to wreak havoc, the episode is successful at conveying a complexity grounded within human actions. Auster and his staff are not cartoon monsters, but very real people, who could be only a stone's throw away, at a hospital near you.
In sum, a great introduction to a landmark series. By the way, a little footnote about the medications in this episode. Phenelzine is a type of MAO Inhibitor. MAOIs are a certain class of antidepressants that are still prescribed, though less frequently nowadays relative to other classes of antidepressants because of their potentially bad interactions with other drugs (including some narcotics, such as meperidine, the other drug mentioned here) and certain foods.