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'Law & Order' nostalgia recap: Weird science

Season 18 | Episode 3 | “Misbegotten” | Aired Jan 9, 2008

I love this photo from Law & Order‘s third episode of season 18, “Misbegotten.” It just expresses Michael Cutter’s complete disdain for the situation. This is so clearly a look that says, “I have zero tolerance for your nonsense,” and there’s a lot of nonsense in this episode.

In “Misbegotten,” a pipe bomb is delivered to a science lab and its explosion injures a pregnant security guard. Needless to say, there’s no shortage of reasons why someone would want to blow up a science lab on a TV crime drama. Green and Lupo’s threat assessment eventually leads them to a company called GeneTech, which claims it just does run-of-the-mill testing. Dr. Hoffman (Hey, it’s Grant Shaud from Murphy Brown!) admits that they did botch one set of test results, telling a couple that their healthy child had Down syndrome, which led the couple to abort the baby. This is where we discover that Green is massively opposed to abortion, and that Van Buren doesn’t give a damn about Green’s opinion.

But the controversy train doesn’t stop there. Someone at Hudson University (Did you ever notice that it’s always Hudson University?) tells the cops that Hoffman once received a death threat there, after the not-so-good doctor claimed that he had discovered a gene indicative of homosexual orientation. That’s the kind of idea that makes people angry. Soon enough, Lupo and Green are arresting Dean Emerson (Kevin Rankin), the brother-in-law of the victim.

And because nobody learned any lessons from “Darkness,” it’s the cops’ turn to get everyone into legal trouble. Lupo’s decision to borrow the PDA belonging to Dean’s shrink and email the schedule to himself leaves Cutter’s case open to a motion to suppress. After Cutter can neither convince Jack nor a judge otherwise, it’s time for him to break out his contemplation bat. While he takes swings at an invisible pinata, he sends Rubirosa to find out how the victim got to the crime scene. Her mother tells Connie that she had an appointment with Dr. Hoffman, and the plot thickens. “He was using the victim for a research project, and he didn’t think to mention it to the police,” Cutter says, somewhat menacingly.

Under pressure, Hoffman admits that his research proved Dean Emerson and his sister-in-law’s unborn child both had the “gay gene.” Right suspect, wrong motive … and a sudden pitch from the defense, with Dean willing to plead guilty and take a minimum of 15 years to avoid the embarrassment of a trial. But the DA’s office doesn’t bite, and the trial happens and turns into a melodramatic mess of family issues and “he couldn’t possibly.” As if that wasn’t bad enough, Cutter and Rubirosa visit the hospital and discover that Dean’s brother Ryan has decided to terminate his wife’s pregnancy in the face of this new information about his baby.

The fact that this happens just as Dean’s homophobic father has decided to testify on his son’s behalf is not a coincidence. As Cutter spells it out, “Abort the child in return for perjured testimony to save Ryan’s beloved brother.” With no legal way to prove this cringe-worthy theory, the DAs ask for a last-minute meeting with the defendant and his brother to play the two of them off of one another. “You’re just like Dad, aren’t you?” Dean asks Ryan, while Cutter pressures him to take a deal so that the testimony is no longer necessary. Over his brother’s objections, Dean confesses to the crime.

But Ryan’s not done. He equates having a gay son to having a child with a disease, and the audience finds out that he only elected to postpone the abortion for two days. Unfortunately, there’s no gene for tolerance.

“Misbegotten” is a hot-button story for sure; homosexuality remains a well-debated issue in this country eight years after this episode aired. Yet there are other issues buried in here too, like the long-term possibilities of genetic-information progress that Gattaca illustrated so well all the way back in 1997. The idea of knowing how our kids are going to turn out and what we can or should do about it is another one of those things that people can argue over for a while. It’s one that hits close to home for me, too: If my parents had known that I’d be born handicapped, would they have kept me? Hopefully yes, but nobody ever had to ask that question.

Kevin Rankin does a brilliant job of portraying Dean Emerson; he’s such an expressive actor without saying a lot, like his great performance opposite Jeff Daniels in the final season of The Newsroom, or the work he did on Justified. It’s always good to see him turn up somewhere, and he really drives the subject home.

But on a lighter note, here’s another episode where our heroes are coloring outside the lines. Considering the show is held up as the very example of the procedural model, it’s amusing as all get out that this set of characters has a particular issue with playing along. It was just last episode that Cutter went forward without a search warrant, and now Lupo’s violating privilege. No wonder McCoy is turning into a cranky old man—all he needs is a scene yelling at Cutter to get off his lawn. “Misbegotten” could probably also be called “Misbehaved,” and that’s a good thing when you’re dealing with subject matter as heavy as this.

Law & Order is airing in syndication.