|Vaya Con Dios (Go with God) isn't merely the Pinochet case-inspired season finale of NBC's popular cops and lawyers drama Law & Order airing May 24. |
It just might be head writer and executive producer Rene Balcer's swan song. After 10 years penning witty repartee for the show's hard-boiled detectives and dreaming up the ever-twisted legal wranglings for the state prosecutors, the Canadian ex-pat is after a little closure.
"Hopefully, it will be my good-bye to the show," said Balcer, who finds out a week before the finale, May 17, if his pilot for a new legal drama, Hopewell, starring Treat Williams, is picked up by CBS. "There's nothing pushing me from Law & Order, I'm just being drawn to something else."
This, even as NBC announced recently that Law & Order has been renewed until 2005, taking the show's tally to an astounding 15 years -- the longest running show now on televison.
"As far as the pick-up, it's very satisfying knowing that I left the show in better shape than I found it," he says. Indeed, Law & Order was a sleepy little cult favourite for its first few years, winning its first Emmy for outstanding drama series in 1998. By then legions of fans were tuning in for the tightly contained two-part episodes split between police investigation of a crime and the subsequent district attorney's court case. For most fans, the show's crisp writing, detailed legalese and the intense courtroom showdowns are unsurpassed on television -- or even, film.
Now that he's rocketed up the hierarchy and is listed in the credits alongside show creator Dick Wolf, Balcer, originally from Montreal, says he's ready to move on.
"This idea had been tossing around in my head for years. It's about a big city lawyer who moves to a small town to practise -- a twist on one of my favourite movies, To Kill A Mockingbird."
Balcer is giving a workshop and a talk sponsored by the Canadian Film Centre at University of Toronto's Innis College Monday. He's also screening a preview of the pilot. If Hopewell is picked up for next fall, Balcer promises a case a week.
His strength has been ripping stories from the headlines. For instance, one of L&O's final shows is based on the Wall Street-porn star imbroglio recently splashed across the news. As if that case wasn't fodder enough, Balcer let his vivid imagination wander. "It unites such an unlikely cast of characters. It goes from college students to skinheads, to strippers, to Wall Street, to IPOs, to the head of the investment bank." Ever the master of snappy dialogue, Balcer edits that last line for his interviewer: "It's the banker, the bimbo, the bigot and the B.A. student."
But Balcer admits he will miss both the real people he's worked with and the characters he created, especially executive assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy, who has been played by Sam Waterston since 1994. So Balcer intended Vaya Con Dios to be a showcase for McCoy, who is prosecuting a second-in-command Chilean villain. "I've had a lot of fun with the Jack McCoy character," says Balcer. "In the finale, the case takes him all the way to the Supreme Court. It's Jack McCoy doing his quixotic quest for justice."
The episode takes its inspiration from a French revolutionary quotation: "A man has only the rights that he can defend." "McCoy takes this as his creed for going to the wall to prosecute this individual even though the crime took place in Chile 25 years ago."
If other ripped-from-the-headlines Law & Order plots are any indication, don't expect this defendant to weasel out with a claim of mental illness. Balcer delights in rewriting history.
For instance, the episode Fools For Love, which aired in February, took as its starting point the Paul Bernardo-Karla Homolka "folies a deux," as Balcer calls it. It explored the deal-with-the-devil angle, but the fictional Homolka faced a much stiffer penalty than her real-life counterpart.
"I like finding a more satisfying ending to a case. Or a more disturbing ending, or maybe an ending that speaks more to the truth of the case. They're not only whodunnits, but whydunnits."
Other cases have tipped their hat to the Menendez brothers, Lorena Bobbitt, the O.J. Simpson trial and battered wife syndrome, to name a few. If those cases, not the individual acting performances, withstand the test of time, it's by design, says Balcer. "It's absolutely a writers' show. In the last 10 years, only one story has been suggested by an actor. It was the one about ritual genital mutilation. Carey Lowell suggested it. That's the only time we've had a useful suggestion from an actor," he says emphatically.
This rule of writers makes for strong transitions when actors leave. The show has lost three assistant D.A.s, one executive assistant D.A. (the mercurial Michael Moriarty) and four cops, among a revolving door of characters.
Balcer is unsentimental about departures, though, considering them creative opportunities. "That's what keeps you from getting bored," he deadpans.
Sometimes excitement comes from where he would have least expected it. One recent episode drew a storm of criticism for its portrayal of a gold-digging murderess who happened to live on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.
"It's nonsense. We wanted to play with a wrinkle in the law about foreign defendants. If we had chosen someone from Mexico we would have been clobbered for being anti-Mexican." So, he received a lot of letters from earnest Canadians? "There's a lot of Canadians up there named Earnest. And I think we got a letter from every single one of them. But the show made the point that the U.S. is still the only democracy that executes people."
While Balcer may be eagerly anticipating his change of legal venue from Gotham to greener pastures, he's obviously still tickled by what his last few waiting Law & Order episodes might stir up. "You have to watch."
Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion (Renaissance Books) by Kevin Courrier and Susan Green has been updated and expanded to include the 1999 season.
WHO'S IN THE ASSISTANT D.A. CHAIR?
PAUL ROBINETTE 1990-93 Real name: Richard Brooks
Characteristics: Tall, quiet, measured, thoughtful, strong sense of justice, not fully fleshed-out character.
Balcer: "mostly a debating partner for Ben Stone."
Character left show without cause; reappeared as tough defence lawyer.
Tidbit: Career hasn't blossomed post L&O. In last year's TV series G vs E, Brooks fought Faustian "Morlocks."
CLAIRE KINCAID 1993-96 Real name: Jill Hennessy
Characteristics: Sense of fair play. Reserved, business-like, fragile, not afraid to stand up to Jack.
Balcer: "She was Jack's girl. She only became interesting in the last season when she started bucking what Jack McCoy and [District Attorney Adam] Schiff wanted her to do."
Tidbit: Edmonton girl stars with Richard Gere in Autumn in New York this August. (Gere dates Carey Lowell.)
JAMIE ROSS 1996-98 Real name: Carey Lowell
Characteristics: Overtly sexual, self-confident, ambitious; foxier than Jack.
Character left to get married and to focus on custody battle with ex.
Balcer: "The Jamie Ross character was an adult and Jack could have adult conversations with her. She couldn't be pushed around."
Tidbit: Bond girl in License To Kill (1989); dating Gere.
ABBIE CARMICHAEL 1998-present Real name: Angie Harmon
Characteristics: More intractable and passionate than Jack; she really wants the bad guys to get fried.
Balcer: "It's nice to have someone around who can kick Jack McCoy's ass."
Tidbit: Cut her teeth on Baywatch Nights from 1994-96 as a forensic criminologist.