By Frazier Moore
NEW YORK – Was a proper goodbye too much to ask for “Law & Order”?
There would never have been many loose ends for “Law & Order” to tie up, nor would a startling, much-talked-about conclusion (such as “The Sopranos” or, presumably, “Lost”) be consistent with its style. But it deserves to be going out with a bit of ceremony.
Airing Monday at 10 PM EDT, the episode “Rubber Room” is the series’ last. That’s what NBC abruptly ruled less than a week ago: “Law & Order” is done. So this episode is helpless to bring us any closure. No finale here. Just the end of the line — after 20 seasons and some 450 episodes on NBC, with no other networks scrambling to save it.
“Law & Order” has been on the air so long it managed to evolve from a raw, innovative and challenging drama in the eyes of its audience at the start, into a clever but comfortable diversion as the years wore on. And all this with the show barely changing.
Of course, the faces changed (some two dozen actors occupied the series’ six main roles). The stories were constantly replenished by the news and other real-life twists that inspired each case. But the rock-steady routine of the show (from its signature “chung-CHUNG” to its cops-and-courts formula) held firm throughout and, for its fans, became second nature.
So, somewhere along the line, “Law & Order” became more, and less, than a groundbreaking TV drama. It became a trusty TV friend.
Even without new episodes in the future, it will remain a TV friend, ever more comfortable to curl up with, as its reruns live on. This friendship will include “Rubber Room,” which, viewed on cable years from now for the umpteenth time, will go unrecognized as the series’ last hurrah.
Caught with no warning as its swan song, the episode short-circuits what would otherwise have set up a significant transition in the cast.
NYPD Lt. Anita Van Buren has led the detective squad at Manhattan’s 27th Precinct since 1993. Meanwhile, S. Epatha Merkerson, who brought dignity and resolve to her role as Van Buren, emerged as the senior member of the “Law & Order” troupe.
But a few months ago, Merkerson decided to take her leave, with “Rubber Room” marking her exit as a series regular. She was leaving behind current series regulars Anthony Anderson and Jeremy Sisto (who play Van Buren’s detectives) and, over at the courthouse, Linus Roache, Alana De La Garza and Sam Waterston, a co-star since 1994.
“It just felt right,” said Merkerson during an interview early last week. “My contract was up, and I just thought it was time to go.”
Now 57, Merkerson joined “Law & Order” in its fourth year, breaking the show’s gender barrier along with fellow newcomer Jill Hennessy as Asst. D.A. Claire Kincaid.
Van Buren was breaking a gender barrier, too, as a woman boss to old-school Det. Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) and his cocky partner, Det. Mike Logan (Chris Noth).
By then, Merkerson had distinguished herself on the stage, including August Wilson’s 1990 Broadway play “The Piano Lesson” and, off-Broadway, “I’m Not Stupid,” for which she won a 1992 Obie. As her first TV series in the 1980s, she was part of the wildly inventive “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” on which she played Reba the Mail Lady.
In 1992, she moved to Los Angeles for “Mann & Machine,” a short-lived sci-fi series from “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf.
Wolf had cast her in a “Law & Order” guest role in its premiere season two years earlier, and when she got the offer to play Van Buren, she says, her agent advised her to sign on, even though the show was then struggling in the ratings.
“He said, ‘Take this thing. It’s not gonna last another year, but it’ll get you back to New York,'” she recalled.
While the private lives of its detectives and prosecutors seldom factor into the narrative, Merkerson has lately been rewarded with a personal crisis for her character — a life-threatening bout with cervical cancer — that gave her some fine, if fleeting, opportunities to show Van Buren’s rarely glimpsed vulnerability.
“I was always trying to find those quiet, focused moments,” said Merkerson, “where no one around her would know that she might be doubting herself. Because she always comes off like she knows what’s happening.”
Merkerson worked a long final shooting day in mid-April.
And then, when it was over, “Everyone clapped — all my friends and colleagues — and that was it. It wasn’t teary, like some of the cast departures had been.”
The episode’s story centers on an online terrorist threatening to blow up a New York City high school. But interspersed through the hour, Van Buren undergoes more tests and worries about her mounting medical bills.
The last scene finds her at a downtown bar where, against her stated wishes, she is thrown a fundraising party by her colleagues.
“You got a lot of friends, Lieutenant,” the police chief tells her.
The hour ends on an upbeat but inconclusive note. There’s no suggestion that Van Buren is leaving the department, nor, of course, any clue that the series likely won’t be back.
But then, until a few days ago, no more “Law & Order” would have been unthinkable to many people, Merkerson among them as she spoke about the future of the series she left behind.
“I don’t know if I’ll watch it next year,” she said, smiling. “We’ll see. We’ll see who they replace me with.”