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Daily Reads: The Best ‘Law & Order’ Episodes, the Fall TV Season’s Worst New Show and More

Daily Reads: The Best 'Law & Order' Episodes, the Fall TV Season's Worst New Show and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential
news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. The Fall TV Season’s Worst New Show. CBS’s new show “Stalker” got some bad press at this summer’s TCAs after creator Kevin Williamson shot back at critics who called his show exploitative in the least mature way imaginable. It doesn’t look like things are going to get much better for Williamson: Merrill Barr of Forbes calls “Stalker” the worst show of the new TV season, calling the writing bland and uninspired and the show’s violence needless.

Even for the kind of viewer that tries to stay out of the violence against women in media debate, it’s hard to ignore it in a series that throws it in your face the way “Stalker” does. From the very first gruesome scene, it becomes clear that “Stalker’s” going to try to make “Criminal Minds” look tame from a violence perspective. However, in the early days of its run, “Criminal Minds” felt like a show that was at least trying to give the violence meaning, showing how it affected the members of the BAU, particularly team leader Jason Gideon. None of this artistry can be found in the violence of “Stalker” which just feels over the top and offensive for offensive sake. Read more.

2. Writing for Phil Hartman. “Saturday Night Live” is entering its 40th season, and to celebrate Slate asked former “SNL” writers about the actors they most loved writing for. Jack Handey chose the late Phil Hartman, one of “SNL’s” most versatile players and a brilliant comic performer who tragically died in a murder-suicide following his wife’s drug relapse. Handey wrote some of Hartman’s best roles on “SNL,” including unfrozen caveman lawyer and the disgruntled robot of “Robot Repair.” 

Phil was cool under fire. I could go to him in the few minutes between dress and air, usually in the makeup room where they were applying a silly wig or prosthetic I had made him wear, and tell him that I had cut a page out of the script, that now he’d be saying this instead of that, that the chair would now break when he sat down on it, etc. 
He would calmly look over the changes and absorb them. I think he enjoyed the pressure. Read more.

3. Lessons of “Lost.” Ten years after its premiere, the shadow of “Lost” still looms large over many of the shows that followed in its wake, especially non-starters like “The Event” or “The Nine.” For all of “Lost’s” missteps, it was never less than fascinating, something that couldn’t be said for its imitators. Writing for Grantland, Andy Greenwald selected six lessons to be taken from Damon Lindelhof and Carlton Cuse’s show.

Characters First, Concept Second. This would seem like a no-brainer, but then you remember “FlashForward.” That high-concept, low-IQ failure from 2009 was only one of a whole flock of series green-lit in “Lost’s” wake, nearly all of which fundamentally misunderstood the show’s appeal. It was never about the island; it was always about the people…In the best writing, action emerges from character, and not the other way around. If you can create compelling protagonists, you can do almost anything with them without breaking faith with the audience. They can jump through time, they can jump into bed with each other, they can even be locked in circus cages and fed fish biscuits. A strong character forgives all manner of foolish plot decisions made along the way. Don’t start with the mystery box. Start with the woman trapped inside it and build out from there. Read more.

4. “Madam Secretary,” “Scandal” and Dystopia. The new CBS series “Madam Secretary” is a show in a “The West Wing” mode, which some critics find a little too simplistic in its idealism. But Christianity Today’s Alissa Wilkinson thinks there’s some value in that considering how cynical most post-“West Wing” political dramas are, giving special note to “House of Cards” and “Scandal.” While the former suggests a Shakespearean downfall on the way for the Underwoods, the latter Wilkinson sees as a dystopian political drama, one where the system is broken and can’t be fixed. Perhaps some counterprogramming is in order.

This matters because “Scandal” is a much-watched show (one of the most-watched shows and most talked-about shows on TV—check the numbers), but it’s one that’s giving us a dystopian view of politics. In its realistic way, the show purports to give an accurate view of what politics are actually like. And in that way, I daresay, it discourages watchers from getting involved. But there is another way. There is something in our order worth fighting for. I know: our world is messed up. Our order, our society, has been steamrolled by corporate interests and oligarchic bloviators who care mostly about winning, not about serving. Read more.

5. The Best of “Law & Order.” “Law & Order” has so many marathons on TV that one would have to work hard not to have the opportunity to watch a few here or there. But “Law & Order” leaves Netflix at the end of the month, so those without the show on DVD have a limited amount of time to check out the best of the series before it leaves. Maura Johnston of the Decider is here to help, and she’s highlighted 13 must-see episodes to check out (before you decide, oh, what the hell, let’s watch another two or seven). 

“Matrimony” (Season 7, Episode 13)

THE LINEUP: Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach)/Rey Curtis (Benjamin Bratt)/Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson); Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston)/Jamie Ross (Carey Lowell)/Adam Schiff (Steven Hill).

THE PLOT: A rich man with a much younger wife winds up dead after he throws a Christmas party for disadvantaged youth.

WHY TO WATCH: Based on the controversy surrounding Anna Nicole Smith’s marriage to the much older oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall, this episode has a slew of one-liners, a panoply of suspects, and a gloriously scene-chewing performance by Daytime Emmy Award winner Anna Kathryn Holbrook, who plays Velma Darcy, the silver-tongued, Texas-raised mother of the young bride. Velma’s been living her dream life in a New York hotel suite and has zero intention of giving up the good life anytime soon.

THE ONE-LINER: “Oh, girl. You are as dumb as a sack of hair.” – Velma Darcy. Read more.

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