The mighty colossus of network drama Law & Order laughs at the arrival of rerun season, while punier shows sweat and tremble. Repeats of L&O continue to bestride the Nielsen top 10 in a way that serial dramas like ER and The Practice — with their multiple, soap-opera-style story arcs — cannot manage. L&O’s sibling spin-offs, Special Victims Unit and Criminal Intent, can also snicker comfortably, since they show every sign of doing healthy repeat business as well. Now exec producer Dick Wolf gets into the reality-TV game with Crime & Punishment, and dang if he hasn’t created another series that surges with confident, muscular power. Shrewdly using the similar logo, typeface, and introductory voice-overs that are trademarks of the Law & Order franchise, each episode of Crime & Punishment follows one real-life case prosecuted by the San Diego district attorney’s office to its conclusion. And from the moment you hear those opening, ominous keyboard chords from composer Mike Post, you’re hooked.
Crime & Punishment kicks off with a doozy of a case. In 1997, James Dailey was accused of murdering his wife, Guadalupe. Coworker witnesses attest that Dailey — a mild-mannered fellow who sits in court looking like Bob Newhart on Valium — used to brag about someday ”slitting her neck,” and that he said, ”I’m gonna kill her, and nobody’s going to find her.” Well, no one did, but the lack of a body doesn’t prevent Deputy District Attorney Dan Goldstein from building a case suggesting that Dailey, the last person to see his wife alive, did the deed. The defense attorney mounts an impressive counterargument, noting that in addition to there being no corpse, Guadalupe had talked about running away from her trash-talkin’ hubby.
Shall I tell you the verdict? Naw—it would spoil the drama, as it would if I told you the result of an upcoming, equally appalling case about a 4-year-old girl allegedly molested by the boyfriend of the girl’s mother. Crime & Punishment is (for once this phrase is punningly appropriate) a guilty pleasure—you know you’re extracting entertainment from a well-crafted series about other people’s horrible experiences. Wolf and Co. cheese up the proceedings by insisting on calling their project a ”drama-mentary,” but C&P—under the guidance of cocreator Bill Guttentag, who won an Oscar for the 1988 documentary You Don’t Have to Die—is filmed in high-definition video, giving the courtroom (a most familiar TV setting, to say the least) a crisp vibrancy that matches the cranked-up energy of the San Diego prosecution team. I’m sure these guys and gals get some cases that you or I (if persuaded that the defendant is innocent) would like to see them lose. I’m therefore leery of painting them as heroes, but they certainly come off as first-rate TV protagonists.
Crime & Punishment and benefits from a central conceit, as expressed in its voice-over at the start of each episode: ”Nothing has been reenacted.” It’s fascinating to watch lives unravel and lawyerly strategy unfold.