Universal // 2004 // 1045 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // November 3rd, 2004
Law & Order: The Fourteenth Season? No, you didn't sleep through the last 12 seasons. Universal has eschewed traditional DVD release schedules and jumped straight into Season Fourteen of the longest-running show on network television today, which you can now take home on DVD...err...today.
And you absolutely should. Chronological order, shmorder, I say.
It is not an easy thing to provide a plot synopsis for a Law & Order episode without giving away the ending in completion, since the show never, ever ends up in the same place it started. So I submit for your viewing consumption the "Generic Law & Order Episode":
The police discover a body. They start making the rounds, ask some questions, and eventually track down a suspect or two. After some questioning, they find a bit of evidence that incriminates the most likely suspect, and so they arrest him or her. After some interrogation, the person usually confesses to the killing, seconds before his lawyer bursts into the police station with a motion to dismiss everything. Tag off to the lawyers, who begin the long courtroom procedure to grill the heck out of the witnesses. Just when it seems that every bit of evidence the police have gathered will be thrown out of court during the trial, they suddenly realize they have charged the wrong person with the crime. Then, in a tearful confession behind closed doors, it turns out to be the mother.
It always turns out to be the mother. Trust me.
Repeat this formula for 14 years, and amazingly enough, it keeps getting better and better. All 24 episodes from the 14th season of Law & Order are included on this DVD, spread over three discs.
A young lawyer trying to defend a serial killer ends up privy to the location of dozens of his client's victims. Out of principle, the attorney refuses to disclose the corpses' location. You can bet this doesn't go over well with the neighborhood association.
A bounty hunter shows up in town on the trail of an upper-class rapist and murderer, tipped off by an interview published by an adventurous reporter who secured a phone interview with the killer. But when the bounty hunter is found dead in a hotel room, the reporter suddenly becomes the one answering the hard questions.
* "Patient Zero"
A woman gets her SUV hijacked, and is left dead in the street. When the police recover the SUV, they find a hazardous material box in the trunk, chock full of the corona virus...otherwise known as SARS. Then, when the hospitals start flooding with the infected, things start to get...interesting.
When a woman is found murdered at the home of an award-winning, reclusive songwriter, the police spring into action. But the singer himself suffers from extreme emotional issues, and has barely left the house in years, except on his psychiatrist's approval. The mystery! Ooh!
A heavy-metal band's pyrotechnics burn a nightclub to the ground, killing 23 fans. The police have more than getting an autograph on their mind when they take the band into custody for murder.
When an elderly man is persuaded into selling his home for $400,000, his family is confused when he gives every cent of the money to a complete stranger. Imagine how confused the police feel when this unknown man winds up with bullets in his chest.
A woman floats to the surface of the Hudson River, and the police spring into action. But when the DA's office goes digging through the details, they notice a connection between the deceased's attorney and a particular judge that smells awfully fishy...no pun intended.
When an overzealous reporter travels to Iraq and broadcasts on national television the movements of the soldiers with whom he is traveling, he suffers some "negative feedback" when his troop is attacked and the soldiers killed by insurgents. Then, when the reporter is shot and wounded outside a nightclub in New York, the police are left to unravel the mystery of how one of the dead soldiers' guns wound up being used in the crime.
An embezzling con man reinvents himself as a faith healer who claims he can talk to the dead. When he unexpectedly joins their ranks, the police and district attorney must figure out the motivations of his killing.
After the owner of a pseudo-sweatshop clothing company winds up dead in his own factory, the police start interviewing the immigrant workers he employed, looking for a suspect. When the trail leads to a young man and his pregnant wife, things unravel like a thread in a cheap garment.
When a fancy sports car strikes a homeless man, the young socialite at the wheel drives into her garage, leaving the man struggling on her fender to die. The police take one look at the scene, and declare a field day.
When mob bookies mix with legitimate businessmen, it can only lead to trouble for the police and the DA, especially when Federal government agents step in and throws their weight around.
* "Married with Children"
When a woman falls from a hotel balcony, the police comfort the sister of the bereaved and the victim's small child. However, when they find out the decedent had no sister, they go back to the house to find the mystery woman and the widow's child have vanished...
* "City Hall"
Bureaucracy can be deadly. An angry shopkeeper, an erroneous water bill, and some nasty coincidences culminate in a shooting, leaving a lot of dead people strewn over the steps of City Hall.
* "Veterans' Day"
When a young left-wing protester ends up dead, the police turn to a grief-stricken, warhawk father who lost his son in Afghanistan as the likely shooter. But when the defense cites extreme emotional distress as the justification for the shooting, the DAs have their work cut out for them.
* "Can I Get A Witness?"
Drug lords, murders, and mules...oh my!
* "Hands Free"
EADA McCoy takes things personally as he goes after a cross-dressing serial killer who manages twice to evade murder charges: the first time for killing his wife, the second time for killing a neighbor. But the third time, McCoy determines to make the charge stick!
* "Evil Breeds"
An old woman is killed in her house, the apparent subject of a break-in. But when the police discover the woman was a Holocaust survivor, set to testify against her concentration-camp tormenter in a deportation case, the trail leads to a Neo-Nazi record label. Hilarity ensues.
* "Nowhere Man"
When an ADA is found murdered on the street, the District Attorney's office goes into hysterics, shocked at the death of one of their own. However, the further they dig into the life of the deceased, the less they realize they know about the man...
* "Everybody Loves Raimondo's"
When a wannabe mobster writes a tell-all book about a life of crime, then flaunts his face around a popular mob hangout for criminals and celebrities alike, tempers flare, and people end up dead.
When a baseball fan catches an in-play ball that ruins the home team's chance at a championship, he becomes the most hated man in the city. Then, when he ends up dead in a barroom brawl, the police have a rather large suspect list to narrow down...about thirty million people!
A famous Japanese couple visiting as tourists get accosted and mugged on the streets of New York. The wife is killed in the struggle. But when the husband returns home to Japan, reporting that NYC is overrun with murderers and black people with guns, and the government of Japan advises travelers from visiting the city...the police are desperate to bring the killer to justice and clear the city's name.
* "Caviar Emptor"
A caviar baron is murdered the day after his wedding to a trophy wife. Hmm. Tough one.
Two women, two husbands. That is, two dead husbands. The police have their hands full when they can't prove either woman murdered her husband...until they start thinking outside the box.
Fourteen seasons later, Law & Order is still exceptionally satisfying in a way that is the envy of all other shows. Most series struggle season after season to keep their viewers stimulated, to keep them from wandering off. In terms of storylines, production, and direction, there has hardly been any innovation in Law & Order at all since its inception. It still follows the same steadfast formula every week that it began with in 1990. When you go flipping through the channels, and you hear that light-jazz theme song, be it a new episode or a decade-old rerun, you know exactly what to expect. It is comforting in a way that few shows have ever had the opportunity to become.
Perhaps the show's extraordinary longevity can be attributed to its keen newsworthy eye. Especially in later seasons, the show pays extreme attention to current political and social news, and manages to quickly encapsulate the headlines into its storylines with shocking speed. This is not a cheap gimmick, mind you; rather, the show simply exists in the same world that we live in on a daily basis, constantly adjusting the new social, political, and legal issues that the city of New York faces in a post-9/11 world. A Geraldo-lookalike reporter is attacked on the streets after traveling to Iraq and revealing his unit's troop movements on national television, inviting insurgents to attack their position. A rock band's pyrotechnics burns down a local nightclub, killing 23 concertgoers. A well-to-do socialite accidentally hits a homeless man with her sports car, then parks in her garage and leaves the man to die on her car windshield. A baseball fan catches a ball in play and ruins the home team's chance at the championship, making him the most hated man in the entire city, and the target of thousands of death threats. These events are all taken straight from the headlines, but they become mere backdrops to the evolving storylines. The show uses these events as jumping-off points to tell its own stories, to weave its own plots, and thus manages to stay both original and culturally relevant at the same time. This is a trick at which the producers and writers of Law & Order have become exceptionally good, and it serves the show well.
Above all else, Law & Order is a show about New York City, about the citizens and the lawmakers and the police officers, and it churns up and down according to the whim of the city. Some of the more interesting episodes in this 14th season find the Law & Order gang dealing with the ever-changing legal and privacy rights as a result of the September 11th tragedy. Even the two Law & Order spin-off shows singularly represent the city of New York in spirit and attitude. Unlike its CBS rival franchise CSI, which sees fit to transplant its spin-offs into numerous locales, one cannot imagine Law & Order working in any city other than New York. The city is the most integral cast member of the show -- its presence can be felt in every scene, every character, every bit of dialogue, and every resolution.
And hey, in terms of cast members, New York is as cool as they come. The city rubs off on the show.
Law & Order takes a very unique approach to character development, chucking the entire notion of it in the dustbin. For the casual fan, the show appears to have absolutely nothing in the way of personal character development at all. However, Law & Order rewards its longtime fans with slow and subtle character developments over entire seasons of episodes -- you have to log a lot of hours to pick up the little details and the tiny references. This unique formula undoubtedly manifests itself in the show's overwhelming success and popularity over the years; it allows cast members to be easily replaced, and for personal development to be completely sidestepped, to focus solely on the drama, the story, the formula of the show. And hey, you can't argue with success.
With such a rock-solid and steadfast premise, not surprisingly, the most drastic changes to the show usually involve cast replacements. The 14th season marks the departure of the longest-running cast member, Jerry Orbach, ending his incredible 12-season run on Law & Order in order to take long walks in the rain, go fishing, take up macramé, and...go work on another Law & Order show, the new spin-off Law & Order: Trial By Jury, which is set to debut in January 2005, where it will no doubt be cancelled for a midseason replacement in the year 2037.
All 24 episodes fit nicely onto three double-sided DVDs (a.k.a. "flippers"), which make sense from a packaging point of view, but which I always find slightly nerve-wracking to negotiate out of the case and into the player. I feel as though if I drop one of these delicate suckers, it's all over. But in terms of the production values on the DVDs themselves, they are second to none. Menus are slick, efficient, and easy to navigate, and much credit should go to the subtitles, which are grammatically and linguistically perfect, with absolutely no omitted words or truncated sentences. Their position jumps around a lot, constantly moving about the frame to indicate which character is saying which sequence of lines; certainly not an original trick, but it begs the question why all subtitling is not done in this fashion. Simply put, these subtitles rule.
In terms of audio and video, these are some handsome looking and sounding DVDs. By the time the 14th season rolled around, the production values for audio and sound on Law & Order were impeccable, and these DVDs reflect it. The transfer is clear, crisp, and incredibly detailed, with great black levels and no sign of digital defects, anti-aliasing, or jagged edges. The transfer is immaculate, with nary an imperfection to be seen. I have seen mention of other people complaining about a peculiar white line plaguing the bottom of the frame when watching these DVDs, but I failed to notice anything of the sort. All I noticed was one of the best-looking television-to-DVD transfers I have ever had the pleasure of watching. As far as sound goes, the soundtrack may only be Dolby Digital 2.0, but this is as tight as 2.0 tracks come, my friend. Incredibly expansive, fantastic bass response, fantastic ambient noise detail and resolution, crystal-clear dialogue...if every 2.0 track were like this, we'd have no need for surround tracks.
Extras are on par with other TV DVD box sets, comprised of two interviews and two character profiles. The feature "Set Tour with Jerry Orbach" takes us behind the scenes to visit the set, with Jerry as our guide. For fans of the show, this will undoubtedly be compelling, since the entire courtroom, office, police station, and jail sequences are filmed on modular studio sets, and having the illusion broken is always a trip. A small interview (which feels more like a PR video) of Park Dietz, mental illness consultant for the show, takes us into the intrinsic research that goes into making the bad guys authentically loco. Though there isn't much here to get excited about, behind-the-scenes looks are always a nice touch.
Too bad this DVD commits the most irritating of television DVD faux pas and fails to place chapter stops that enable the viewer to skip the opening credits. Let's face it: after 14 seasons of the Law & Order theme song, I'm ready to skip it. The chapter stops -- four per episode -- seem to be inserted into random points during the episode, rather than at the commercial breaks.
Whew, I'm glad I got that off my case, because it was eating me up inside...oh, wait...no it wasn't. If that's the only thing I have to gripe about, then these must be some fine DVDs indeed. I had to think hard to come up with anything bad to say about them.
Universal's schedule of releasing Law & Order on DVD has confused many and been the subject of countless discussions, since at the time of this publication, the first, second and fourteenth seasons are available on DVD. Likewise, with the spin-off shows Criminal Intent and Special Victims Unit, the DVDs are coming out in seemingly random order. Now, whether this reflects some sort of carefully thought-out marketing scheme by Universal, or whether the head of product development is numerically dyslexic, it remains to be seen. But let's face it: any season of Law & Order on DVD is a good thing, order be damned.
Law & Order has a universal (no pun intended) appeal and longevity that approaches the unearthly. Fourteen seasons later, the show still feels as fresh, innovative, and engrossing as the day it first aired, despite the plethora of copycats flooding the airwaves. For me personally, Law & Order is one of the few shows that no matter what, I can turn it on and be entertained without fail, one hundred percent of the time.
Despite the almost constant barrage of Season Fourteen reruns available at the turn of a television dial, it is hard not to recommend Law & Order: The Fourteenth Season -- great picture, great sound, great story, great drama; this is everything a television DVD box set should be. Sure, you can watch the same episodes every night on TV for free, but you wouldn't be reading this review if you didn't like buying DVDs, now would you? And rest assured, this DVD set magnificently captures one of the finest television shows in history just hitting its stride at age 14, years past the point when every other show of its era has been cancelled.
Believe me, there are worse things you could be spending your money on. And hey, in another five years, Law & Order will catch up with Gunsmoke as the longest-running TV drama in history.
I say, keep 'em comin', pardner.
Has there ever there been a TV show on DVD more appropriate for this site to pass a verdict on?
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 1045 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Profiles of Actors Jesse L. Martin and Fred Dalton Thompson
* Set Tour with Jerry Orbach
* Interview with Park Dietz
* Profiles Teaser
* Official DVD Site