'Law & Order: Los Angeles': A Chance To See More Than Just Starlets : Monkey See NBC's new 'Law & Order' spin-off could take a lesson from the original: some of the best crime stories come from exploring the subcultures that give a city its identity.
NPR logo 'Law & Order: Los Angeles': A Chance To See More Than Just Starlets

'Law & Order: Los Angeles': A Chance To See More Than Just Starlets

Alfred Molina as DDA. Ricardo Morales and Regina Hall as DDA. Evelyn Price, in NBC's new Law & Order: Los Angeles. Dean Hendler/NBC hide caption

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Dean Hendler/NBC

I turned on last night's premiere of Law & Order: Los Angeles with a little bit of hope that it could carry on the best parts of its franchise.

The reasons for the success of Law & Order (classic version) have been well-enumerated over the years: familiar format, cases that resolve at the end of the hour, ripped-from-the-headlines plots, the twist close to the end. To that list, I would add one more thing that made L&O exciting and charming: the way so many of the cultures of New York were worked into the cases.

Law & Order was the first place I saw vividly the Russian mafia in Brighton Beach. The show went into the worlds of Chinese gangs, gay porn producers, Nigerian drug smugglers, exclusive private schools, neo-Nazi sympathyzers, IRA gunrunners and so many of the other corners of New York City life that are not easily accessible to those of us who don't live there. The show was produced in New York (unlike NYPD Blue and CSI: NY) so when the L&O detectives knocked on an apartment door, it swung open to reveal a real place I had never been before.

The classic show is gone, but if there is any American city that has as many different cultures as New York, it's Los Angeles. The picture we usually get on TV is the culture of Hollywood, filtered through TMZ and Entertainment Tonight. With this new Law & Order, though, we might be able to glimpse Latino-majority Koreatown, the Iranian-Jewish community on the Westside and the few old hippies who still hang out in Santa Monica.

Once when I was in L.A., I pulled up to a stoplight next to a yellow VW bug with two young women in it. We all had our windows down. A Korean pop song I had never heard of came on their stereo. They squealed and sang along, moving their arms in some complicated synchronized choreography they had memorized.

I had no idea what the song was, but I was totally taken in by how much they loved it and how much fun they had with their dance. Then the light changed and they drove off. That's Los Angeles: people living in parallel cultures at stoplights. Listening to someone else's music through an open car window could be the Law & Order: Los Angeles analogue of the apartment door opening in New York.

The show last night opened with starlets and paparazzi. The two new detectives followed the well-worn L&O-style trail through Hollywood fashion, photograpy and fake reality shows. They had to go that route, through the most well-known culture of Los Angeles, because it's the first show. They would be wise not to stay there.

Law & Order
's success has always been credited to the predictability of its formula. In L&O:LA, I hope its success is also about the door or window that opens to another world in the same city we think we already know.