Warning: mild spoilers
The episode description of Season 20's premiere is as follows: "A young war veteran is found murdered in a university parking garage, and Lupo and Bernard connect the crime to a law professor, but the victim's psychological state is called into."
Well, that accurately describes the first half, at least. By the end of the episode, though, that deceased veteran is practically an afterthought. A seemingly cookie-cutter show by L&O's standards flies off the rails and into a federal frenzy. And of course Jack McCoy is behind it.
This episode, like many of their previous installments, addressed a hot button issue. The three main problems plaguing our nation today are the economy, health care, and Kanye West interrupting petite blondes. L&O goes off the table and goes back about, oh, two years, and digs up the controversial topic of torture. …Yay?
For me, talking about torture is just that — torture. It involves pitting the hypothetical against the practical. It's a military tactic that doesn't concern me, yet it's a military tactic that concerns me. It's being inundated with extreme examples, ideals, and forgetting that waterboarding sounds like a recreational activity you do at the lake with your parents on the boat. (Unless your uncle doesn't tell you where he left your Washington Redskins beer koozie autographed by Joe Theismann.)
I wonder if the show's decline in ratings has to do with the Simpsons Factor, e.g. it's all been done, it's a different cast, and other shows are doing crime dramas in new and exciting ways. Or maybe it's because L&O episodes use galvanizing topics that can deter a crowd. It went from No. 7 in 2002 to No. 62 last year. Sometimes you just want to watch the good guys catch the drug dealers with the villainous facial hair and save the princess. But that princess is in another castle. I understand that. But this is Jack McCoy's Fortress Of Justice, and by Jove, he's gonna try and break some eggs by indicting torture proponents.
One can't help but think about one's own thoughts on torture when watching the episode unfold. But remember, it's a fictional show. It's a hypothetical. Maybe the show's writers are trying to make a point about torture. Or maybe they're just trying to create a situation in which Jack McCoy brandishes his fists of prosecution. So that's what I did. I let go of my own uncertainties about contemplating torture and went back to enjoying a television show. Yet at least it got me thinking, even reluctantly, a little bit about something other than "will they kiss?"
And that's exactly what happened, culminating into a very unexpected conclusion. While trying to carefully dance on needles by not spoiling the entire ending, the final 60 seconds highlight McCoy's dedication to cutting through bullshit and avoiding the political game as much as possible. It's the way he's hardwired, and that's why we all wish he was our third grandfather.
In Season 18 I wondered how McCoy's character (Sam Waterston) was going to be used when he became the district attorney. Would he be a secondary character, like D.A.s of seasons past? Not at all, especially since McCoy pretty much spearheaded the entire effort. He will be visible. He will be ornery. And he's probably going to have far less folksy wit than Arthur Branch (Fred Thompson). Deal with it.
So in this episode, Order pretty much stole the show. Law was entirely absent after about the first 20 minutes, but we did get some exposition. Lieutenant Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) tells her officers that she was diagnosed with cancer. It's an interesting angle, considering Merkerson is rather vocal about the dangers of lung cancer.
I have a feeling this ongoing subplot will probably wind up being another latent detail. You know how the show goes. It's like back in Season 9, when the writers said, "Oh, shit, we forgot. Benjamin Bratt's leaving the show. See you next year!"