As two of TV’s most iconic shows, “24” and “Law & Order,” wrap for good Monday night, on the heels of Sunday's “Lost” finale, critics are assessing the legacies of three shows that represent some of the most impactful dramatic television of the past two decades.
The Fox thriller starring Kiefer Sutherland set a ticking clock under its characters – and injected the rest of the TV landscape with a shot of adrenalin. The venerable NBC mothership (yet another spinoff of which, “Law & Order: Los Angeles,” rolls out this fall) has filled more hours of airtime than any other single show in TV history. And the stranded souls on a magical island proved once and for all that audiences will sit still for plots of byzantine weirdness as long as they are good.
“When ‘24’ debuted just two months after 9/11,” says Fordham University’s Paul Levinson, “it was clearly something that already was tackling this new horrendously dangerous age of terrorism.” The writers actually made changes in the storyline, executing Jack Bauer’s wife at the end of the first season, he points out, making the show more severe and uncompromising in a way that spoke to audiences. “The killing of Teri has been the best expression on television of this aspect of life in the 21st century,” he says, adding that the series has been controversial due to what some have seen as a glorification of torture, but it has been a complex show with conspiracies all the way up to the White House.
When producers first brought the strict "24" format to critics, nobody thought the show could last beyond a single season. “That 24-hour format was a genuine innovation in TV history and gives the show a unique place.“ No other show has equaled “24” in its intensity, he says, adding that he would put it “in the top five TV shows of all time.”
“Law & Order,” on the other hand, a show that has now tied with “Gunsmoke” for the longest-running drama on the air, represents “the triumph of traditional television,” says media expert Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
The rigid structure, divided by the musical beats, embracing the basic storytelling arc – beginning, middle, end – has proved more potent than shows that toyed with viewers' expectations either in format or content. The great contribution of the Dick Wolf-helmed franchise has been its consistent ability to tell high-quality, well-written dramatic tales about relevant stories everyone can relate to, says Mr. Thompson. Along the way, he adds, the show, with its rotating cast, “has inadvertently stumbled into the value of keeping fresh faces before audiences to maintain audience interest."
This dependability has educated decades of audiences about the nuts and bolts of legal procedures, says Elizabeth Kelley, a criminal defense lawyer based in Cleveland, not to mention helped a young attorney learn the basic ropes. “On a very rudimentary level, it shows newer attorneys basic lawyering skills,” she says, adding that while the writers took a certain license, the show illustrated the importance of a strong courtroom presence and creativity in legal argument. It also showed how basic court procedures such as an arraignment played out. “I learned how to do an arraignment by watching 'Law & Order,' ” Ms. Kelley recalls with a laugh, remembering that "I was scheduled to do an arraignment and I watched it and it got me through the procedure the very next morning.”
While the ABC serial about a planeful of crash victims on a remote island set a new bar for sheer complexity of storylines, perhaps the biggest legacy of "Lost" in the media landscape is the online component the writers and producers cultivated from the start. “This was not merely a fan page,” notes Mr. Levinson, but a rich community that extended the storytelling world of the show and set a new standard for this kind of creativity across the Internet.