Law & Order and its many offshoots have become a part of the national consciousness. Nary an hour goes by when an American would be unable to find at least one random episode playing on television, whether as part of a marathon or just a plain old rerun. Cal and I watch the flagship show and SVU on a regular basis thanks to friends’ DVDs and Internet pirates everywhere. (Did you know they started a Law & Order UK?)
I also remember the time I bought Season One on sale, at Discoteca Laziale in Rome. I was desperate for something… American. Something I could sink my teeth into, and come out of feeling like I had just visited home. But, with that DVD set I got a lot more than I bargained for – it was like opening a time capsule from my first year in New York. Every episode was about a senseless, brutal crime that could happen to anyone at any time, where the slightest mention of it in the press set the city on edge, ready to riot at the mere suggestion of injustice.
I remember that New York. I moved there during Mayor Koch’s last year of an historic era in city history. Then David Dinkins took the reins – and we no longer had someone who telegraphed that quintessential chutzpah New Yorkers need in order to know they are being looked after. It’s the same chutzpah that Rudy Giuliani had as mayor; everyone hated him or loved him, but no one had any doubt who was in charge; and you went to bed at night knowing it was all going to be OK, whether it was 1995 or September 12, 2001.
I do not believe it is any coincidence Law & Order started a year after Dinkins took the oath. And in the ensuing 19 years, Law & Order has not been about the crime depicted in any particular episode; nor has it been about the characters, obviously, given the success of the show despite the turnover in its cast. Instead, as Cal pointed out after we watched yet another mind-blowing episode this evening, “Law & Order is the first blog. It’s Dick Wolf’s private commentary on the evolution of New York City.”
Other shows set in New York try their best to catch the essence of the city that seems to come so naturally to Law & Order. But they always film in other places, fake places where brownstone-lined streets end at other brownstone-lined streets that run perpendicular – a phenomenon that happens maybe twice within New York City limits. (Watch any exterior shot on Friends to see what I mean.)
The New York of Law & Order is real – so real, in fact, I can’t help but think that elsewhere in America and around the world, a place deep within the souls of ex-New Yorkers reacts to seeing parts of their lives in the background of every scene. Not an episode goes by that I don’t see some coffee shop, dry cleaner, bar or bodega I once knew.
I don’t miss living in America. Given God’s will and no small amount of luck, I expect to be living on this side of the pond for the rest of my life. When I go back to the States this summer for a friend’s wedding, I won’t be spending a lot of time in New York – a city I once was in love with, but with whom I broke off intimate relations when another city, Rome, stole my heart and refused to give it back.
But when I watch Law & Order I am a New Yorker all over again, and my heart aches with the desire to feel the way I once did about the city. It’s been my favorite character all these years.