"Law and Order" debuted on NBC way back in the fall of 1990. George H.W. Bush was president and the Gulf War hadn't even started yet. With so many episodes now in the can and airing around the clock on various cable outlets, certain narrative "Law and Order" tendencies have become very apparent.
Here's a quick primer in how to make an episode.
1. Honor the show's "ripped from the headline" sales pitch. Use as a jumping-off point some salacious real-world crime or criminal situation that viewers will immediately recognize (i.e. fundamentalist Mormon polygamists, a construction crane collapse, Jack Kevorkian's assisted suicides, dogfighting rings, crooked athletes, Scientology)...
2. ...but change the facts around enough to avoid any pesky real-world lawsuits. If needed, kick off the episode with one of those ominous "any connection to real-life people is coincidental" disclaimers.
3. Be sure that the aforementioned real-world crime or situation in the first-half "Law" portion has little to do with the second-half "Order" portion. Things are never what they seem in any good "Law and Order" episode. What begins as a murder investigation must lead our heroes to a bigger crime, a shocking conspiracy, or a ruthless villain.
4. The prologue must feature some mundane (yet colorful and possibly ethnic and/or blue-collar) New Yorker tableaux suddenly interrupted by the discovery of a bloody corpse.
5. The detective characters examining the corpse should offer some pithy (possibly funny) one-liner that will take us to the opening credits. In screenwriting they call this a scene's "button." Jerry Orbach always got the best ones.
6. Whoever the detective characters first consider a suspect must be a dead-end red herring. The real culprit should be someone they meet in the first 10 minutes of the show but who seems at first completely inconsequential.
7. A detective character will use "LUDs" to uncover a vital piece of evidence.
8. Another good source of evidence are video surveillance cameras, whether at an ATM or a toll booth or a subway.
9. A defense lawyer will arrive to stop any interrogation.
10. The detectives' boss will order them to check another angle or ask more questions.
11. The detective characters must talk to the coroner character, preferably over the body of the victim. Some arcane, CSI-style bit of forensics will come into play here, helping steer the detectives to the truth.
12. If at any point in the investigation, special knowledge is called for (about teen subculture, about military protocol, about international diplomacy), one of the detective characters will have it, no matter how implausible it might seem. And this knowledge should be delivered in a clunky speech that might as well have the word "exposition" flashing underneath it.
13. If anyone's going to be arrested, the arrest must happen in a public forum to make it as humiliating as possible for the suspect. In "Law and Order" no one's allowed to turn himself in and detectives exercise zero discretion.
14. Something the detective characters did (or didn't do) will be tossed out by the trial judge and ruled inadmissable. This will make things very difficult for the D.A. characters. This will typically occur shortly after...
15. ...a defense attorney serve the D.A. characters with one of those blue motion forms. It's never good news.
16. The female D.A. character will conduct her own investigation. Why this is necessary isn't always clear. Didn't the detectives spend 30 minutes on this case already?
17. The male D.A. character - who never conducts investigations - will face a big setback (because of the judge, a witness, or the accused) and devise a very creative, possibly unethical, solution to get around the setback. This new solution will be conceived either on the courthouse steps or in his wood-paneled office.
18. Include a scene in the caged witness room on Riker's Island. Hopefully this will involve a defense attorney asking the D.A. characters "What are you offering?"
19. The offer is never appealing to the defense.
20. At trial, the D.A. characters will do more arguing than questioning when there's a witness on the stand. Your lawyer friends hate this part of the show.
21. Include this dialogue: "Objection!" "Withdrawn." Also good to use: the judge growling "Watch it, counselor."
22. At trial, one of the witnesses will reveal something he/she didn't intend thanks to the cross-examination skill of the D.A. characters. When this happens, it's a good idea to show the jury box's reaction.
23. About 45 minutes into the episode, all hope will seem lost. The case falls completely apart. The accused looks like he'll get away with it.
24. But the D.A. characters go back to a part of the case (a witness or a piece of evidence) that had been previously neglected and find a new way to use it.
25. When the truth about the crime is at last going to be fully revealed, slowly, slowly fade in the volume on the violin soundtrack. Often this will occur in the D.A.'s conference room or on the witness stand.
26. End the episode with a final pithy one-liner from one of the D.A. characters that perfectly sums up how A) justice always prevails or B) the real bad guy got away.