NBC's 'Law & Order' will take on polygamy
Virginia Sherwood, NBC
Law & Order cast

"Law & Order" features S. Epatha Merkerson, left, as Lt. Anita Van Buren, Jeremy Sisto as detective Cyrus Lupo, Anthony Anderson as detective Kevin Bernard, Sam Waterston as District Attorney Jack McCoy, and Alana De La Garza and Linus Roache as prosecutors Connie Rubirosa and Michael Cutter.

"Law & Order" returns for its 19th season tonight (9 p.m., Ch. 5), and defying all odds it's still hitting on all cylinders.

Start watching tonight's episode and you won't be able to stop. It starts out with a dead Wall Street stockbroker and turns into an investigation of organized street fighting then takes a turn into vigilante justice with all sorts of shades of gray.

Local viewers, however, will be even more interested in this season's fourth episode, scheduled to air Wednesday, Dec. 3. It's titled "Lost Boys," and it's the latest episode of a prime-time TV show to involve polygamists, with multiple references to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It's also quite obvious that a whole lot of research went into this episode, which handles some very tough issues without climbing on a soapbox and pretending there are easy answers. (Like, for example, last week's episode of "Boston Legal.")

Without giving away too much of the plot, the lost boys in the episode are exactly what local viewers would expect. They are teenagers and young men in their 20s who have been thrown out of a polygamist community in the fictional community of Boyd Canyon, Ariz.

There's a disclaimer on the front end of the episode declaring, "The following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event." But, as "Law & Order" has been doing for more than 400 episodes, it takes real-life events and adapts them. And, quite obviously, Boyd Canyon, Ariz. home of the fictional Church of the True Path is standing in for Colorado City, Ariz., and the Fundamentalist LDS Church.

Without giving too much of the plot away, one of the lost boys is murdered in the opening scenes of the episode. The detectives come to the erroneous conclusion that the young men involved in the case are Mormon because of homemade markings on their T-shirts (and information from a Web site).

And some of the language that detective Bernard (Anthony Anderson) uses is downright offensive to faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints although it's said in ignorance.

Bernard displays his misapprehensions about Mormons ignorance that's not that far-fetched but he's quickly corrected by Van Buren when he opines that it "kind of fits" that one of the lost boys is Mormon.

"Luke has never been to a movie, and he's afraid of black people," Bernard says.

(Both of which are true of the character.)

"Well, that doesn't fit," Van Buren says. "The Mormon Church has been fully open to black folks for 30 years. And Mormons go to movies like everyone else."

"Everywhere except Boyd Canyon," detective Lupo (Jeremy Sisto) says.

"Well, that must be it. These kids are Mormon fundamentalists," Van Buren says. "The groups that broke from the official church live in isolated compounds out West."

On several occasions, various characters go out of their way to draw the distinction between members of the LDS Church and splinter groups. Like when a judge says to assistant district attorney Connie Rubirosa (Alana De La Garza), "Am I reading this right, Miss Rubirosa? Two Mormon kids go at it in the park?"

"Fundamentalist Mormons, your honor," Rubirosa replies.

And when the detectives travel to Palmyra, N.Y., to track down members of the Church of the True Path as part of their murder investigation, one of the polygamists explains, "We're here on a pilgrimage. Palmyra is the birthplace of the Mormon Church. It's where Joseph Smith had his first vision."

"But you're not mainline Mormons, right? You're with the Church of the True Path," Lupo says.

And, again, real-life events over the past couple of years have clearly demonstrated that there's still plenty of ignorance about the differences across America.

(The script itself falls down slightly when the polygamists tell detectives they were in New York City to "visit the Mormon temple." Which, of course, they would not be allowed to do.)

But, as "Law & Order" still does so well, it presents various sides of the story without giving us easy answers. There's a look inside the world of polygamy including a very tough scene in which a teenager describes her wedding night, when she was 16 and her husband was 52.

And, just like real life, there are no easy answers. It's easy to be appalled at what's happening; it's a whole lot harder to do anything about it.

Don't go into this episode expecting any pat answers, any quick solutions or much in the way of a happy ending.

District Attorney Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) is exactly right when he calls it "a hornets' nest."

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com
Originally published Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008