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'Law and Order' reboot nods toward race and policing, but plays it safe

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The first new episode in 12 years of "Law & Order" airs tonight. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the show once broke new ground for crime dramas but appears to be playing it safe this time around.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: At first, it seems the mothership "Law & Order" is eager to tackle the thorny issues which arise when filming a TV cop drama after the murder of George Floyd. As the show begins, a famous Black entertainer has been shot to death. Detective Kevin Bernard, played by "Black-ish" star Anthony Anderson, has a quip that puts it all into perspective while talking with his boss, played by Camryn Manheim.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAW & ORDER")

ANTHONY ANDERSON: (As Kevin Bernard) First time in 20 years, people actually care about a Black man getting shot.

CAMRYN MANHEIM: (As Kate Dixon) That's funny - if it was a joke. If not, you can save your speech for someone else because I am not in the mood for politics right now.

JEFFREY DONOVAN: (As Frank Cosgrove) Music to my ears.

DEGGANS: The guy agreeing with the boss is Bernard's partner, Frank Cosgrove, a new character played by former "Burn Notice" star Jeffrey Donovan. Cosgrove is an old-school detective who gets upset when a Black kid who's minding his own business refuses to answer his questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAW & ORDER")

DONOVAN: (As Frank Cosgrove) I mean, I'm white. He's Black. I say the wrong thing, and my career is over.

ANDERSON: (As Kevin Bernard) Maybe.

DONOVAN: (As Frank Cosgrove) Maybe? Is there another way of looking at this?

ANDERSON: (As Kevin Bernard) Hey, Frank, you came at him hot, man.

DONOVAN: (As Frank Cosgrove) The truth is, it's these damn phones. They've ruined everything.

ANDERSON: (As Kevin Bernard) That's one way of looking at it.

DONOVAN: (As Frank Cosgrove) The other?

ANDERSON: (As Kevin Bernard) They hold us accountable.

DEGGANS: Sounds like they're setting up Cosgrove to start an interesting back and forth on systemic racism in policing - until he agrees with Bernard on the whole cell phone brings police accountability thing moments later. This goes on throughout the episode - slight nods towards the discussion about policing, race and brutality that's happening out in the world, but a deft turn away from the subject before it gets too substantial. The core murder at the heart of the first episode is a prime example of this tactic, focused on a famous Black entertainer accused of drugging and raping at least 40 women, who gets out of jail after a court decision voided his guilty verdict.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAW & ORDER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I'll say this one last time. I'm innocent.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) So all the allegations against you...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Are false. Like many people of color, I was wrongfully charged and wrongfully convicted.

DEGGANS: It's obvious "Law & Order" is ripping its first new case from the headlines of the Bill Cosby scandal. In this story, after the entertainer is killed, "Law & Order's" story hints at issues of race and policing. But ultimately, it centers on the question of whether it's acceptable to track down and kill someone who seems pretty guilty but had their conviction overturned, which isn't much of a question. "Law & Order" didn't always play it this safe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE POST'S "'LAW & ORDER' THEME")

DEGGANS: The original series debuted in 1990 - a gritty show that featured investigating officers in the first half of every episode and prosecutors in the second half. The pilot episode featured corrupt city and police officials. Another centered on a young Black woman who falsely accused white policemen of rape. In that first season, the show didn't shy away from racial issues, but it did have some pretty clumsy depictions of non-white people, suggesting that some stereotypes weren't totally off-base.

Over the years, show creator Dick Wolf has steadfastly supported police officers and the criminal justice system. He's built that ethic into a lucrative series of franchises, including CBS' "FBI" series, NBC's Chicago-set dramas and "Law & Order," which has had six spinoff series. It's possible that Wolf's "Law & Order," with its rigid structure and values, can't really tackle the conversation on police brutality and systemic racism that Floyd's murder initiated in real life. But it's obvious the first episode of the new "Law & Order" was too busy delivering an outlandish ripped-from-the-headlines story to really try.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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