Every so often, Law & Order will do an episode that bends the formula a little bit — not eliminating it, just bending it, putting the usual story beats in slightly different places and focusing more on a character, and his relationship to the case, than the case itself. This week’s episode was one of those, and Noel Kirkpatrick has a good post about how this episode worked (for those who haven’t seen it, it contains spoilers):
That procedural gives way to this character drama, a struggle not to maintain a conviction, but to maintain integrity. It’s a compelling drama that emphasizes that the show’s procedural elements, while often what the show is recognized for (“The original is still the best” as TNT says), the compelling character work that the show is capable of is why people should be watching.
With all the years it’s been on, and all its many imitators, Law & Order‘s “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern” approach to character narratives is still a bit unusual. What I mean by that term is that a lot of the character development takes place not in scenes set aside for character development, like on most shows, but in asides, or throwaway references, or stuff that isn’t exactly the focus of the scene. (We pieced together a lot of the late lamented Lennie Briscoe’s life through his throwaway jokes.) Then they can use some of that information as the basis for one of these change-of-pace episodes. I think you could argue that this approach sometimes works better, in terms of building characters over time, than taking time out of the episode to have a lot of scenes that are specifically marked as character beats.