The series that launched a franchise offers up a fourth season of canny cops, learned lawyers, and "ripped-from-the-headlines" societal conundrums.
"In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important, groups." If you're a fan of the "Law & Order" franchise, you already know how the rest of that quote goes. If not, chances are you've still heard it at least once, seeing as how the show is currently in syndication on, as near as I can tell, every channel on the planet. The show follows two prongs of law enforcement: the cops who bust naughty people, and the district attorneys who prosecute said naughty people. Along the way, evidence is lost, officials are bribed, deals are cut, and Christopher Noth remains wholly unaware that he will some day be called upon to feign passion for the skeletal creature known as Sarah Jessica Parker.
"Law & Order" is the procedural's procedural, so your enjoyment of it will depend largely on whether or not you like procedurals. The episodes are, for the most part, self-contained, working from the theory that the best way to land the largest audience is by ensuring that anyone who happens to tune in will be able to enjoy themselves without having to know what happened last week, last month, or last season. Each episode hinges on the mechanics, the mystery, and the manipulations involved in getting from crime scene to conviction. It's a premise that has a proven track-record, as the multiple "L&O" and "CSI" spin-offs prove, but it's also one that's diametrically opposed to the current trend of heavily serialized storytelling evidenced by shows such as "Lost", "Battlestar Galactica", or "24". Those shows benefit enormously from the DVD format, allowing viewers to immerse themselves in plotlines and character arcs that stretch over many seasons, and actually make that "Play All" option worthwhile. By comparison, sifting through a season's worth of "Law & Order" is a bit like chowing down on an economy-size package of Oreos: tasty, to be sure, but after a while, you've got to taste something, anything, other than an Oreo. (Do note, however, that unlike Oreos, the "Law & Order" DVDs don't taste particularly good when dunked in milk. Although I hear they're working hard to correct that with future releases.)
Which isn't at all to suggest "L&O" isn't a damn fine show. Like Oreos, it makes for great snacking, which is why it works so well in syndication. If you find yourself sitting around the house some lazy Tuesday afternoon, and your remote lands on a rerun of "L&O", you can bet you'll be treated to plot twists, double-crosses, and all manner of surprises. "L&O" also earns major points for actually giving its heroic cops and lawyers a less-than-100% success rate; these guys don't exist in that magical legal realm occupied by Matlock, where the good guys never lose a case.
Many of the episodes are of the "ripped-from-the-headlines" variety, putting fictional spins on real events. Stand-out eps for the season include "Discord", which sees a notoriously hedonistic rock star accused of rape, while he claims his dalliance with a college student was consensual; and "Born Bad", which questions whether a young boy with a genetic predisposition toward violence should be held accountable for his crimes. Even though the events these eps riff off of are long since passed, it's both a credit to the writing and a depressing insight on our species that they still feel timely.
The set is largely barren of extras, sporting only occasional "Deleted and extended scenes." The conventional wisdom for deleted scenes is that they are usually deleted for good reason, and that proves to be the case here. Interesting viewing for the completist, but not much to write home about. As popular and long running a show as this, it's a shame the set is not supported with something more substantial.