Oz and Order
By Sarah Buttenweiser

From Gadfly Sep./Oct. 1999


Last spring, while my belly swelled with my second baby, my two-and-a-half-year-old son, Ezekiel, developed an enchanted fascination—with the Wizard of Oz. His journey to Oz began with music, a CD soundtrack from the movie. Next, he began asking questions about the story. Countless people collaborated on a drawn-out, fireside (CDside) chat, recalling the tale: babysitters, friends, grandparents and, of course, his parents. He recited the names of the story's main characters, endlessly.

The baby, Lucien, arrived. In the foggy haze of sleeplessness, I noticed that Wizard of Oz paraphernalia was piling up, gifts from well-wishers to placate the somewhat infuriated older brother. Magnets shaped like wide-eyed Dorothy and scruffy Toto stuck to our fridge. Plastic characters stood at attention, except for the witch, who was tossed deep into a basket of toys, because she was "scary." My son officially had his first childhood obsession.

Over the summer, I was physically trapped, tethered to a newborn who nursed every two or three hours, day and night. I was exhausted, bleary-eyed, distracted, desperate for an escape hatch, however tiny. I made my own retreat: I became an avid fan of the long-running NBC crime series Law & Order. First-run episodes of the show air Wednesdays at ten, but it is also shown three times a day (but only two episodes, because one is repeated) on the cable network A&E. With the help of a VCR, it was possible to immerse myself in this alternative universe.

Ezekiel's journey to Oz allowed him brief retreats from the relentless reality of the new, tiny baby, whose presence took up what was once unshared space. As Ezekiel turned the corner toward his third birthday, good and evil began to matter in new ways; he was in the midst of learning about friendship, about how to be a big brother. The Wizard of Oz contains some helpful instructions. The story values friendship; the story values home. The wicked witches turn out to be less powerful than our friends, whose journey is ultimately successful. For a three-year-old, the metaphors were lost. The literal journey, the actual heart and brains and courage and home, are discovered. Although Ezekiel and I chose very different worlds into which to escape, there are parallels: both sets of tales deal with the most basic of human issues, the struggle between good and evil. Does good actually triumph? In Oz, it certainly does. Dorothy, the most innocent of innocents, kills not one but two wicked witches, both times unintentionally. On Law & Order, good does not necessarily win out over evil. Shades of justice and injustice are ceaselessly complex; the show is at its most compelling, in fact, when revealing those enigmatic layers.

Dick Wolf, creator and producer of the series, envisioned a show in which the stories—of crime and prosecution—would heat up the front burners, while the characters simmered on the back burners. He wanted to take cases that were in the headlines and fictionalize them, somewhat. In its ninth season now, the show is not a soap opera set in a police station or the district attorney's office. It cares more about cases than characters. The premise is to portray how police investigate crime, and how attorneys prosecute criminals. Like a baton pass, the cops give necessary information to the lawyers. The show grapples with two central issues: uncovering a crime, and the search for justice.

Justice, it turns out, is a complex ideal. The machinations of law, poverty and wealth, as well as human frailty, have to be worked in. Justice seems kaleidoscopic; episodes reveal it as if through different lenses. The world of New York detectives and prosecutors is so far removed from mine that it might as well be Oz. During those milk-brainwashed weeks, when my life was squarely about minutiae—when Lucien last nursed, how to potty train a reluctant, nearly three-year-old child—I needed some big, smart issues to decipher, needed something besides my life.

I welcomed the chance to leave the worries of my day behind for this seasons-long meditation on the criminal justice system. At its core, mirroring reality as it does, Law & Order provides a reflection of our times' critical social issues. Sitting on the couch with Lucien sleeping in my arms, I fancied myself a student of Law & Order. Because the show is repeated in a continuous loop, a chronological survey is easy to make, once you've become a dedicated (read: addicted) viewer. If the series' pilot represented Dick Wolf's original vision most accurately, then it offers these clues to motivation: he conceived a show squarely about New York, with a cinéma vérité quality, shot entirely in New York. Early seasons depicted a grittier city than is currently shown, one with rappers on corners, graffiti, more linoleum floors and dinginess in apartment buildings' poorly lit, narrow hallways. The minor characters, such as passersby who'd witnessed a crime, were painstakingly drawn early on; they were given extraneous dialogue, jotting a quick sketch of character and ethnicity.

Both setting and character gave the feel that New York is the quintessential American melting pot. Over the years, the sense of place has been sanded away, and a more sanitized perspective on the city is depicted, one less often uniquely tied to location. In concert with the show's mission, real life headlines filter in, like the racist Texas beating, or the Delaware teens who were accused of killing their newborn baby. Law & Order reaches peak form when confronting politically hot social issues: organized crime, race, twisted family violence, wayward teens, abortion and gay rights, random terrible acts, the effect that New York State's reinstating the death penalty has had on how crimes are tried. The range of characters—from victims to perpetrators, lawyers and police, as well as the public—can represent different viewpoints and assert underlying prejudices that come into play during a case's investigation and prosecution.

Most visibly, the series has changed as different actors have cycled through the seasons. The cast's ensemble nature implies a distinct lack of "stars." Cast changes tend to be advantageous, rather than detrimental, because they shift the ensemble's balance. Adam Schiff (portrayed by Steven Hill) was brought in for the first full season, and he's the only remaining cast member from that period. The politician, he serves as a reminder that the district attorney's office represents the will of the people of New York. Schiff delivers more last lines on the show than any other character; his ironic wisdom adds a certain necessary pragmatism to the lawyers' side of the series.

The cops have a saltier sense of humor than the lawyers, perhaps in response to the darkness they regularly encounter. Lenny Briscoe (played by Jerry Orbach) once apologized to his daughter, "I do better with people once they're dead, maybe." The first cop duo on the show—Max Greevey (George Dundzna) and Mike Logan (Chris Noth)—were adept at bouncing ideas off of one another; they both loved sleuthing and loved working together. They established the importance of chemistry, whether congenial or somewhat combative, between partners. The current team represents a balance of old- and new-school cops. Briscoe, a wry, middle-aged, half-Jewish recovering alcoholic with two failed marriages under his belt, dresses in drab suits and slicks his hair down. From the old school, he's a liberal guy, in a live-and-let-live kind of way. His fairly young Latino partner, Rey Curtis (Benjamin Bratt), is Catholic and married with three daughters. Curtis is handsomer, more meticulous, better versed in technology and more conservative than Briscoe. They've cobbled a friendship together despite their differences of opinion and style, much of the shift happening after Curtis had an affair. His struggle, having fallen from grace (and temporarily from his wife's good graces), humanized him and allowed a new level of camaraderie to be built between him and Briscoe.

Law & Order functions more like a repertory theater than a Hollywood-influenced television show. Loads of character actors appear, often filming an episode each year or two. Law & Order is further set apart from Hollywood because the screen is not merely filled with solely beautiful people. I loved the saltier, grittier cops, especially the volatile Mike Logan, with the slight machismo to his strut and signature fashion accessory: a collection of plaid ties. I love Lieutenant Van Burean's earthiness, which is in equal parts heartfelt and gutsy. I also adored Ben Stone's proper demeanor, both legally and in the chillingly polite way he addressed his witnesses, "Sir" or "Madam."

But my favorite character on the show is Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston). While he wants to uphold the law, he also is determined to put bad people away. Sometimes, those two desires are in conflict; McCoy is willing to skate the edges of the legal process to get the bad guy. Added to all of this, he wants to win. What I find most compelling is watching him visibly wrestle with his conscience, with black eyes that crackle and flash when agitated, an oft-pained expression and a quiet but potent voice. The character lives his work, ignores almost everything else. He loves his work; he is his work. Not surprisingly, he has a history of getting involved with his assistants. Over the course of many years in the D.A.'s office, McCoy married one assistant and was romantically involved with others, including Claire Kincaid, the only one of his lovers who regularly appeared on the show. Their romantic relationship was so discreet that perhaps only devoted viewers would have picked up on it. McCoy is both selfless and the most self-absorbed of personalities, a remarkably complex character for television.

Recently, I asked Ezekiel, "Who's your favorite character from The Wizard of Oz story?" He replied immediately. "I cannot answer that question." He sounded, as he does when he uses such words as "cannot," quite formal. "Why not?" I ventured. "They're all my favorites. They're together." The world of Oz has paved a route for Ezekiel to explore his own fantasies and imagination, to ponder issues of good and evil and what it means to be decent and humane as opposed to hurtful and selfish. Law & Order has done the adult equivalent for me. Television series are often equated to mindless escape or, worse, mind-numbing vapidity. But Law & Order sheds a discerning, intelligent eye on both self and society.

I like observing how the police do their work; I enjoy, like Ezekiel, caring for characters. Far removed from my world of breast-feeding and potty training in the suburbs, I'm sustained—even invigorated—for an hour at a time by a gritty fictional New York: a few wisecracking cops, a handful of earnest lawyers, and the harsh realities exacted by the criminal justice system. Who says television is bad for you?