'Law & Order': A Show to Set Your Watch By

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NBCU

And to think, they almost got away with it. Law & Order, Dick Wolf's crime procedural, was canned by NBC last week, killing its chances of beating Gunsmoke for the title of longest-running prime-time drama. But despite losing out on that brass-ring superlative, Law & Order can still hoard a title Gunsmoke can not: it's the show you can set your watch by. Much of its success is owed to its precisely calibrated format, so finely tuned that you can guess what time it is by the scene. So if, by chance, you suspect your Movado is running a few minutes slow, find one of the many repeats airing on cable, and read on:

One minute after the hour: Two people engage in banter, probably while walking down a darkened Manhattan street. If it's a couple, chances are the boyfriend is jocular and the girlfriend is annoyed. They discover a dead body. She screams.

Three minutes after the hour: The detectives show up to the scene and are apprised of the situation by the responding officer, who is professional, yet bristles at being asked for details he can't possibly know. He suggests the detectives ask the couple who found the body. They're still in shock, though, so they're not much help. The senior detective delivers a morbidly funny quip.

Six minutes after the hour: Opening credit sequence.

Ten minutes after the hour: The detectives huddle at the station and discuss The Victim. The no-nonsense lieutenant stands by, tossing out questions to get the detectives thinking. Leads are brainstormed, then followed up on.

15 minutes after the hour: While canvassing the neighborhood, the detectives encounter a colorful, uniquely Manhattan character, perhaps a deli owner or a hot-dog vendor. He's seen the victim before. She used to come around with an Older Guy with slicked back hair, and she always looked uncomfortable around him. Once, she had a black eye. Pretty girl like that letting some jerk pound on her. It's a real shame.

19 minutes after the hour: Older Guy is spotted arriving at his brownstone. The detectives approach. He looks cooperative for a moment, then bolts, dropping his bag of groceries, which likely contains oranges and a loaf of French bread. The detectives give chase. Older Guy almost gets away, but luckily the detectives split up. He's not going anywhere.

24 minutes after the hour: Older Guy is being grilled by the detectives. He's shocked that the victim is dead, but swears he didn't have anything to do with it. So why did he run, the detectives would like to know? He just got spooked, he says, and he'd never kill her. He … he loved her. He has a funny way of showing it, says Junior Detective, what with the black eye he gave her. Sure, they got in fights, says Older Guy, and maybe once he went too far, but that doesn't mean he killed her. He has a point, argues the Defense Attorney, just arriving, horrified to see that the detectives are questioning her client without her present. They have to release him. If you really want to know what happened to her, Older Guy says, you'll ask Special Guest Star Who Represents a Current Issue.

29 minutes after the hour: The detectives arrive to question SGSWRCI, probably at his place of business. He knows the victim, but only in passing. He expresses sorrow that she's dead, and sincerely hopes that the detectives find the scumbag who did this. But it wasn't him. He has an airtight alibi.

33 minutes after the hour: SGSWRCI's airtight alibi springs a leak. The detectives arrive to arrest him at a very inopportune time seeing as how he's having a cocktail party or attending a gala or giving a lecture. The cops lead him away.

38 minutes after the hour: SGSWRCI is being questioned, but is stonewalling. He thinks he's untouchable. The Smokin' Hot Assistant District Attorney would love to prosecute, but not with a case this flimsy. She needs more evidence.

43 minutes after the hour: SGSWRCI's seemingly loyal parent or spouse or business partner or girl Friday gives the detectives a tip after the guilt becomes too much to bear.

47 minutes after the hour: SGSWRCI is arraigned. He pleads not guilty, natch. His defense is novel and ridiculous. A jury would never believe it. Or would they?

50 minutes after the hour: The trial is underway, and SHADA isn't doing so well. She puts SGSWRCI's betrayer on the stand, but Defense Attorney shreds him/her in cross examination. SHADA needs a miracle.

52 minutes after the hour: SHADA questions SGSWRCI. He still thinks he's untouchable. Then, SHADA hits a nerve and he starts to become agitated. Defense Attorney, who was objecting left and right earlier, suddenly becomes shy and has no problem with the line of questioning. An enraged SGSWRCI yells out his confession, then instantly regrets having done so. But the damage is already done.

56 minutes after the hour: The detectives talk with SHADA after the verdict is handed down. Sure, SGSWRCI went to jail, but it doesn't begin to scratch the surface of the current issue he was representing. Everyone's satisfaction at a job well done is tinged with uncertainty. The victory is bittersweet.

58 minutes after the hour: And we're FIN—roll those closing credits.