Law & Order Season 21 Premiere Review: The Original Series Returns After 12 Years

After 12 years away, the original "Law & Order" series is back with all-new episodes. The series ended abruptly in 2010 after 20 years of telling the stories of the police officers who catch criminals and the attorneys who prosecute them. The flagship series will rejoin its currently-airing spin-offs, "Law & Order: SVU" and "Law & Order: Organized Crime." Some of the original cast members are back, including Anthony Anderson as Detective Kevin Bernard and Sam Waterston as District Attorney Jack McCoy, and they've added some big-name newcomers like "Hannibal" alum Hugh Dancy as Executive Assistant District Attorney Nolan Price. Series creator Dick Wolf returns as executive producer, while producer Rick Eid will be the showrunner.

"Law & Order" follows a strict storytelling structure, opening each episode with a murder before following the police who are investigating the crime. About halfway through they turn it over to the District Attorney's office, and the second half of the episode deals with the courtroom side of things. The murder reveal happens just before the theme and first commercial break, the suspect is almost always arrested, and 9 times out of 10, a guilty sentence is handed down. No one watches "Law & Order" to be surprised by clever writing or subverting tropes; it's throwback TV, episodic and fairly self-contained. 

The revival premieres with "The Right Thing," an episode based heavily on the alleged real-life crimes of Bill Cosby. Henry King is an entertainer who was released from prison due to a trial error almost identical to Cosby's. Shortly after making a TV talk show appearance to talk about his newfound freedom, King is found shot to death just outside of his home. This kicks off the episode and the case as Detective Bernard and his new partner Detective Frank Cosgrove (Jeffrey Donovan) try to figure out who killed King and bring them to justice. 

Warning: This piece contains sensitive, potentially triggering references to sexual assault and rape.

A cavalcade of bad choices

One of the big questions surrounding the "Law & Order" revival pondered how to make the series feel relevant in 2022. The world has changed drastically in the 12 years since the series went off the air, and in the U.S., law enforcement is a hot topic that comes under intense scrutiny. Police reality shows like "Live PD" and "Cops" were pulled off the air in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota. Police procedurals have all tried to address the problems with policing in some way or another, and even the cop comedy series "Brooklyn 99" had a change in direction. In an attempt to be relevant and start a conversation, the "Law & Order" revival makes sure to hit all of the hot topics, from police brutality to rape culture to institutionalized racism. The problem is that it's all handled with the same ham-fisted corniness as the series has always had, and the messaging becomes messy. 

The first half of the premiere episode follows Detectives Bernard and Cosgrove as they investigate the murder. As they stand over the corpse of King, Cosgrove makes some kind of crack about him and Bernard stops him, stating: "Every victim deserves respect, even the ones who raped 40 women." There's a lot to unpack there without including the fact that Anderson, who portrays Bernard, has sexual assault allegations of his own. This single line of dialogue is a perfect warning to the viewer, an indicator of the tastelessness to come. Almost every single thing about the revival is wrong-headed and poorly handled, especially with regards to sexual assault survivors and race. The whole first half is an exercise in discomfort, while new partners Cosgrove and Bernard bicker over how to best do their jobs. While partners not getting along is the start of any good buddy cop story, these two are actually adversarial.

When Bernard and Cosgrove get back to the station, Bernard comments that "for the first time in 20 years, people care about a Black man getting shot." Not only does this gloss over the entirety of the Black Lives Matter movement, but it still weirdly reeks of Bernard sympathizing with King. While there is plenty to be said on the topic of how the deaths of Black people are handled, the scene has the rest of the station shut the conversation down with lines like "I am not in the mood for politics right now," and "we have a murder to solve." The show essentially says, "There are problems with this, but we're not going to address any of them," and it's intensely frustrating. The rest of the police portion of the first episode is just as bad, with King's agent making a horrific rape joke and Cosgrove's interrogation of a young Black man interrupted when everyone pulls out their cell phones. 

"I'm white, he's Black, I say the wrong thing and my career's over. It's these damn phones, they ruin everything," he says. If you ever wanted to hear dialogue that sounds like it was written by your racist uncle, then I've got good news for you, because "Law & Order" season 21 is full of it. The entire police half of the episode feels like Dick Wolf and Rick Eid shaking their fists at clouds, though they try to make up for it a bit with a throwaway line where Cosgrove agrees with Bernard that accountability is a good thing. Of course, he turns around and throws whatever goodwill he's earned out the window when he starts badgering a suspect in interrogation and causes her to confess to murdering King without first sharing her Miranda rights. She was the first of King's victims, and it was her court case that was thrown out, letting him go free. Cosgrove even lies to her, telling her that if she confesses, no DA would try her because of the circumstances. She confesses and they immediately arrest her, finally delivering us into the courtroom side of the drama and away from the terrible attempts at sociopolitical commentary. 

Not even Dancy can save this

The second half of the episode follows Executive Assistant District Attorney Price (Dancy) as he navigates a complicated trial. He feels like the show's progressive moral compass, bursting into the episode like a breath of fresh air and throwing a fit about the way the suspect's confession was gotten. For a moment, the episode feels like it's actually interrogating an idea, as Price argues with District Attorney Jack McCoy (Waterston) about the confession. Price feels that the suspect is already going to be viewed as sympathetic by the general public, and a forced confession under duress is only going to hurt their case. Price's motives are a mix of genuine progressive ideals and a desire to do justice according to the way he was taught. Dancy injects life into the series, and his argument with McCoy has moments where you can see a much better show peeking through. Unfortunately, the characters' discussion on the moral implications of their actions quickly turns into another clumsy attempt at commentary when Price points out his reasoning and McCoy shares some "harsh truths."

"Why let the defense tear him apart on cross, shift the focus away from the evidence and onto her sympathetic client and the big bad police department?" Price asks, pointing out that they have actual evidence beyond the confession and the police are going to look horrible in this situation. 

McCoy, no-nonsense as ever, replies with the following:

"Like it or not, Nolan, the big bad police department is our partner, and they're under attack. There are people trying to defund them for God's sake and you want me to castrate them?"

It looks like the series is going to pit Price's progressive attorney against Cosgrove and some of the other backward cops. He even runs into Cosgrove in the courthouse lobby and the officer tells him, "I catch 'em, you cook 'em, that's how this is supposed to work. I'm a cop, I'm a good cop. Stop trying to change the world, do your damn job." While it feels like the show is trying to make a point about old-fashioned policing and modern ethics being at odds with one another, it's not written with any nuance. And while Dancy is one of the few performers who really seems to be trying to elevate the show, even he can't make something of dialogue like, "In the eyes of the law, when a good woman kills a horrible man in cold blood, it's called murder." 

If the series weren't so self-serious and its topics of discussion weren't so painfully relevant, the goofy dialogue and often stilted performances would be enjoyable for the nostalgia they provide. There is absolutely zero self-awareness, however, and the poor handling of the material feels flippant at best and exploitative at worst. 

A story "ripped from the headlines" that should have been left there

Like many Americans, I grew up with "Law & Order," sneaking out of bed after being tucked in to go watch it with my parents at a fairly young age. I would wait at the stairs and listen for the theme, because that meant the murder was over and I could watch all of the fascinating detective and attorney work. I've probably seen a few hundred of the series 456 episodes, so I'm no stranger to the corny dialogue or poorly-handled "topical" episodes like "Law & Order: SVU" GamerGate episode. I am also a fervent Fannibal, or fan of NBC's "Hannibal," which means that anything with Dancy in it is automatically more interesting to me. I wanted nothing more than for the "Law & Order" revival to be a bit goofy but enjoyable; a perfect series to watch with my parents. 

While it's possible to address subjects as touchy as race, police brutality, and rape in a way that's informative and promotes better understanding, "Law & Order" isn't interested in any of that. These topics are buzzwords, ideas that will draw attention, and there's no desire to explore any of them in depth. The trial sequence where the rape victim is examined by the defense is horrific, lingering on every last tiny gasp and tear as she recounts her traumatic assault. There's already an entire "Law & Order" series dedicated to solving sex crimes, so why use rape as a plot device in the flagship series as well, and why make her testimony so long and so graphic? It's exploitation, reveling in the awfulness of it all. If this were a purely fictional character, the scene would be difficult enough, but knowing that it's based on a very real person with very real pain is almost sickening. 

It's difficult to tell tawdry true stories without being exploitative, and "The Right Thing" hews so close to Cosby's case that it's impossible to separate the two. Dancy and Odelya Halevi, who plays Assistant District Attorney Samantha Maroun, both deserve a better series to play around in, as they're both doing the best they can with some truly terrible dialogue. In this instance, "The Right Thing" was to leave "Law & Order" dead and buried. 

"Law and Order" season 21 premieres on February 24, 2022, on NBC.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).