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Readers will recall my column from a few times back about the weird coincidence of Rules of Engagement and How I Met Your Mother airing episodes with the same plot on the same. Yes, it would be helpful if more shows did that, but they don’t … or do they?

A quick bit of research reveals that, yes, this Amazing Coincidence has happened again, just this season. Each entrant in the Law and Order franchise, the shows that rip their stories from the headlines and then disclaim this truth in an opening title card, has aired an episode based on the case of Ted Haggard, the former evangelical preacher attached to the New Life Church, who was caught up in a meth and gay sex scandal. The original Law and Order aired “Church” on February 9th; Law and Order: Criminal Intent aired “Brother’s Keeper: on February 20th; and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit aired “Sin” on March 27th. Each of them is a variation on the Haggard case.

All these programs are produced by Dick Wolf, who must be quite a busy fellow not to notice what was happening, but do any of the writers talk to each other? How could such a coincidence occur, especially after the first one aired? Are bizarre cases really that short in supply? Aren’t the writers in competition with each other? Do their childish hands all reach out in unison for the same tabloid tales hot off the presses, with Wolf, like an exasperated parent, appeasing them by saying, “OK, OK, you can all have a piece of this one”? There is probably a similar competition over there at CBS among its CSI folk.

The original Law and Order is a show with such a seemingly strong premise that it can withstand multiple cast changes over its, thus far, 17 years on NBC. Based unofficially on a short-lived early 1960s ABC show called Arrest and Trial, its bifurcated narrative strategy (first the crime, then the trial) unburdens its cast members of excessive weekly labors. The eight-year-old Law and Order: Special Victims Unit was an early spin off, a straightforward policier incorporating a cast member from the cultish but cancelled Homicide: Life on the Streets. The six-season-old Law and Order: Criminal Intent is still another variation on the L&O template. While still maintaining the franchise’s essential characteristics — a quasi-realism born of its New York settings, and its hatred of defense lawyers — CI began as a modernization of Sherlock Holmes, in which a puzzle-solving brainiac is observed in his deductions by a more meat and potatoes minded companion.

All the L&O Haggards are varied and each illuminates its franchise’s differing approaches to crime stories. Law and Order’s Haggard is played by franchise regular Anson Mount. SVU’s is played by former sitcom star Tim Daly. And in a bit of novelty casting, Tom Arnold plays the CI Haggard. The CI treatment also incorporates broad elements of a 2006 conflict between Haggard and University of Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins. SVU and CI play up the male escort website angle, while Law and Order and CI place some of the characters in the world of acting.

Mount on Law and Order

Law and Order’s version walks us (usually literally, given the show’s signature if unlikely walk-and-talk police interviews) through the murder of a gay actor, who turns out to have been a consort of Mount’s reverend Sterling. After some wasted public dollars on a wrong suspect, Assistant DA McCoy (Sam Waterston) finally figures out that the murder is someone close to Sterling, out to protect the church as a whole. In Law and Order there is usually some kind of legal crux and in this case it’s the sanctity of confession, but given the case’s eventual outcome, this amounts to a red herring, which the series in its dotage now all too often resorts to.

Daly on SVU

Arguably the most popular of the three, SVU, as befits its premise, concentrates on “the children.” The episode’s Reverend Curtis of New Souls Church has 10 kids; some of them go to Iraq to fight, while some of them work out their theatrical inclinations by working on a Satan’s House; and in the end, the Reverend was nobly seeking only to protect his own child. There is a legal crux when the pesky 5th and 14th amendments get in the way of a righteous bust, but after a few complex red herrings and flourishes of misdirection, the killer turns out to be yet another congregation official forsaking the law for a higher purpose. Unlike in the other two franchises, in SVU’s the Haggard representative happens not to be gay.

Arnold on Criminal Intent

Sadly, the Haggard case underscores some of the increasing flaws in the baby of the family, CI. The show’s first three seasons were excellent, and each mystery, prefaced by a clue-ridden teaser, was surprisingly clever, the show’s Holmes, Major Case Squad detective Robert Goren (played by a tic-infested Vincent D’Onofrio), eventually disentangling the real mystery buried beneath the surface puzzles. Now the show feels at sea, and has imported two new detectives to alternate with Goren and his partner Alex Eames (Kathryn Erbe), thrusting the show’s plots closer to the black and white morality of the crime half of Law and Order itself. And it can’t resist a soap opera subplot with Goren’s ongoing burden of a schizoid mother and a homeless brother.

As with the Mother - Rules coincidence, the three L&Os’ exploitation of the Haggard case highlights subtle and not so subtle differences among the shows. The original Law and Order is about the quirks of the law. SVU trades in a higher irony and in the intersection of criminal law and everyday morality. The colder CI, having forsaken the sublime puzzles of its earlier years, falls more into the fold of the original series. SVU, as befits its title, shows the most sympathy for the victims, and even the victimizers, which may account for its higher ratings. It also has the most twists, which used to be the prerogative of CI. Law and Order’s account of the case is the most formulaic within both traditional television and the laws and orders of the franchise itself.

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