I was vacationing in Nice when I saw my first L&O. It was 1994, the show had just began airing on France 3 - and the guys there took great pains to make sure it didn't become a hit. For all its run on France 3 Law & Order was what the French call a bouche-trou: something to air when there was nothing else to air. The show moved from Saturday afternoons to Sunday nights; at one point you had to stay awake until 2.am to see it. (Universal-owned cable channel 13ème Rue then picked the show and gave it saner schedules and a greater visibility. As of this article, the show and its spin-offs are now "owned" by TF1, the greatest French network - how things change.)
And yet I was hooked. I didn't miss an episode and often found myself championing the show to people who'd never heard of it. I cheered when the show finally won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series in 1997*. Looking in retrospect, Law & Order was the first TV show I watched seriously, not just for entertainment.
Back in 1994 and for a long time afterwards L&O looked like nothing else on French television. Homegrown dramas in particular looked antediluvian in comparison - dull, preachy, simplistic and devoid of any ambiguity. L&O on the other hand managed to pack intricate plotting, compelling drama and unflinching takes on explosive issues in 45 minutes and made you ask for more. It was both extremely formulaic and completely unpredictable - you could almost never guess where the murder-of-the-week would lead, and prosecuting the culprit was often more difficult and trickier than finding him. To a young French viewer, the spectacle of American judiciary proceedings was often even more fascinating than the who's-why's-how's of the crime. I also liked the show's willingness to disturb. Not all episodes ended with the good guys winning and all questions being solved. Sometimes the system worked, sometimes it didn't and sometimes victory was more problematic than defeat. Complex issues were dealt with in a complex way, and it was often up to the viewer to make his own opinion, come up with his own answers. Everyone - and I mean everyone - could turn to be a baddie on L&O, no matter his milieu, race, politics or religion. This I liked too. L&O was my absolute favorite show up until Carey Lowell's departure.
All good things must come to an end, however, and I began taking my distances in the Wiest years as the stories became more predictable - in terms of both story and stance. The show started looking like a French drama - there was a good side and a bad side, and writers wouldn't let you choose; the once wonderfully arcane plots became simpler and repetitive. Sure it still had great actors doing a great job, but what good is an actor without a good part to defend and a good story to serve? The spinoffs finished killing the show for me. SVU I found even preachier than the original and too focused on a particular brand of crime to be surprising on the long run; CI was good and Vincent d'Onofrio gave a wonderful performance as Robert Goren but it lacked a concept. Jury might have been great but ratings didn't give it a chance. I'll check the upcoming L.A. but I don't expect much of it - hopefully I'll be proven wrong.
*A revealing anecdote: when asked by the now-defunct magazine Generation Series how they felt about the crowning of "their" show, France 3 executives replied that they didn't know about it, some going as far as to say they didn't even know about the show itself...)