Cleavage vs. Crime: Do Law & Order Starlets Pretty Up to Move Up?

My friend Caroline, a fellow Law & Order addict, can pinpoint the precise moment when Jack McCoy’s assistant D.A.’s begin to “evolve” (we think the word is “regress”) from law-book grinds into glamour babes, preparing to depart from the show for the greener pastures of higher-paying roles, stardom, a celebrity marriage. Suddenly, they’re burnished to a blinding sheen. You can see your reflection in the lip gloss; ditto the hair, silken and swingy from a blow-dry that couldn’t have survived a limo ride to the studio, much less a hard day wrestling ideals with McCoy or making deals at Rikers Island. We’re suddenly more focused on how they look. Law seems less like a passion and more like a hobby, a chic accoutrement. And bingo! They’re leaving the show.

What makes this so dispiriting is that the transformation seems to have as much to do with the actresses’ aspirations as with Dick Wolf’s fantasies. I may be wrong about this. For one thing, it’s possible they’re about to be canned and are trying desperately to hang on. Still, there’s a thin line between keeping your crime-fighting cred and devolving into eye candy for the presumably randy and much-coveted 18-to-49-year-old male viewers, for whom television is awash with women who purport to swagger and swashbuckle, but whose grooming and bedroom eyes tell a different story. Meanwhile, the aging male star, comforting in his wisdom and authority, can go on forever, like a favorite leather shoe (think Jerry Orbach), whereas the female was put on Earth (or at least on movie and television screens) to supply visual variety.

How the various women on the crime shows handle this conflicted mandate-looking brainy and serious enough to handle a “man’s” job while radiating the necessary quotient of sex appeal-makes a fascinating reflection of the contortions of women today, for whom dress and behavior are no longer easy or automatic, and for whom every decision, from makeup to marriage, is freighted with upsides and downsides. Shopaholism versus workaholism, skin-deep beauty versus inner drive: every piece of jewelry, every strand of exquisitely groomed hair, every inch of exposed flesh signifies some sort of choice between preserving professional, feminist integrity (we know how long it takes to look like that!) and succumbing to crass youth-and-marketing ideals in pulchritude.

Mariska Hargitay, Kathryn Erbe and Bebe Neuwirth on three different Law & Order shows; CSI’s Marg Helgenberger and Jorja Fox; CSI: Miami’s Emily Proctor and Khandi Alexander; Kathryn Morris on Cold Case; and Poppy Montgomery on Without a Trace: That there are so many interesting actresses doing plausibly serious work, in shows rich with the plot, character and narrative drive so sadly lacking in most Hollywood movies, is cause for uncorking the champagne. And one of the things that allows these women to develop as full-fledged people with recognizable personalities is the ensemble format of the weekly show, with its surrogate-family motif, its internal battles and turf dramas. The bond between the women and the men, the women and the women, the men and the men on these crime shows is as intense and varying as a love affair. Indeed, what slows the shows down for me, no less than “inappropriate” dress, is when their “real lives” take over, back-stories intrude, family skeletons rattle around and come out of the closet.

What’s just as interesting as what my friend Caroline sees as the increased glam factor toward the end of these women’s tenure is their remarkable evolution on the shows. They begin as interchangeable pretty girls with a few personality tics to distinguish them from each other. For example, Emily Procter-coming off her saucy Southern-Republican-in-the-liberal-woodpile role on The West Wing-is suddenly, on CSI Miami, a crime-scene technician in love with bullets and bullet holes. It takes them a while to get their footing, to create distinct personae, and it’s playing off the other characters that enables them to do this organically. By now, who else but Kathryn Erbe can work with Mr. Know-It-All Vincent D’Onofrio on Law & Order: Criminal Intent? O.K., she’s a subordinate, but she’s smart-and, crucially, they’ve molded and adapted to each other in a classic duo of flyaway flamboyance versus common sense. Mr. D’Onofrio and David Caruso’s Horatio are the amusingly grandstanding honchos of their respective shows; Gary Sinise and William Petersen the quietly confident savants, the ones who allow the women to emerge.

I have a few gaps in my understanding of these character “arcs”-e.g., I’m not sure when and why Ms. Helgenberger’s Catherine Willows took over as boss lady from Petersen’s Grissom on CSI-an ignorance I must here explain. My husband and I, despite making a living from watching and writing about movies, are techno-dummies who rely on our assistant, now removed from New York to Kansas, to supply us with our weekly videotapes of these shows. There are occasional hitches, such as when Eric goes on vacation, or when the broadcasts themselves are interrupted by Kansas’ famous Storm Team. In case you didn’t know from The Wizard of Oz, the weather is a very big deal in Kansas, a flat state, home to many storms and tornadoes. Even the absence of weather is a very big deal. Weather, you might say, is the state sport, a 24/7 operation. The Storm Team peremptorily and periodically interrupts the show to provide storm warnings, including one announcing that “there are no storm warnings.” When there’s even the remotest possibility of a downpour-not to mention a tornado-in any corner of the state, not only is CSI or Law & Order interrupted for advisories that include detailed maps and updates, but a continuous crawl provides moment-to-moment instructions such as: “All fallen branches should be brought to the schoolyard on — Street.” Or: “The Baptist Ladies’ Bible Club will not be meeting at — Church on Wednesday.” What these offer is not so much a reality check as a reminder of the flatness and dullness of a weird landscape and culture that produces (along with nouveaux Republicans) some of the most lurid crimes in recent memory.

Why is there no CSI: Kansas, where they really need it? Because-to return to my original theme-there are no babes in Kansas. CSI: Miami’s lab ladies can look serious as all get-out because frivolity is all around them and exposed bronze flesh is as unremitting as the sun. Who needs décolletage over the microscope when South Beach provides yards of barely clad hedonists in 24-hour-party mode; ditto Las Vegas! And New York’s CSI (much improved since it dropped the gloom-and-doom look) has its own kinkiness in post-mortem nudity, outer-borough élan and gallows screwball wit. The growing comfort level and sparkle between Mr. Sinise and Melina Kanakaredes as the show’s two leads suggests how actor chemistry can sell an improbable setup. Not only am I beginning to suspend disbelief regarding the exotic Ms. Kanakaredes and her look-at-me coiffure; I’m even ready to believe that it’s New York humidity rather than eight beauticians with gel that create that billowing mountain of curls. Well, almost.