|Dick Wolf is a pretty sombre fellow most days but he was in rare great spirits while talking with press at NBC's leg of the midseason press tour a few weeks back. In fact, he was downright giddy.|
The veteran TV producer turned up with the cast from his three current hit series - Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Law & Order: Criminal Intent - with the presumed intent of promoting the shows. Instead, Wolf indulged in a little personal in-joke. "In the last two weeks," he deadpanned, "all three shows have been in the Top 20 [U.S. Nielsen ratings]. I was really worried they were going to cancel us."
Not likely. Law & Order and its subsequent series represent TV's sturdiest franchise. Most weeks, the original Law & Order is the top-rated program in this market (followed by The West Wing and Jeopardy). It also runs four times a day on A&E's weekday schedule.
The original series also has NBC's strongest vote of confidence: The network recently renewed Law & Order through the 2004-2005 season. To its credit, the original has survived umpteen challengers and dozens of cast departures. The formula has never changed: focus strictly on a crime and the subsequent prosecution and keep well outside the characters' personal lives. "That's always been the Law & Order formula and it's worked incredibly well so there's no reason to change it," says Wolf.
More important to Wolf is that viewers - and reviewers, for that matter - make a clean delineation between the original and the two spinoff series. "All three shows are very, very different," he says. "I've said it before: All Campbell's Soup comes in red cans Each show is unique from the other."
Industry insiders know that Wolf has always been the driving force behind the Law & Order machine. He created the show in 1990 after stints as a writer/director on acclaimed '80s series like Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice. Since its inception, Law & Order has always been a different TV animal. It is also, according to Wolf, a show that attracts a higher class of viewer.
"One of the most interesting statistics came out last week," says Wolf proudly, "which was that The West Wing and Law & Order audience has the highest median income, more than $70,000 annual income, which is extraordinary. It means there are a lot of smart people watching the show."
So far this season viewers are watching all three variations of Law & Order. SVU is holding its own in the Top 20 U.S. Nielsens (in fact, it's the only Friday-night show in that elite group) and Criminal Intent is also doing solid numbers on Sunday night, even against the tough competition of ABC's hit action series Alias. "You look at these two shows," says Wolf. "One is a cartoon and one is really, really good television. Sorry."
Wolf is particularly nurturing in regard to Criminal Intent, his newest show. It was initially denounced by many critics and got off to a shaky start in the ratings. It differs from the others series in that it focuses on a crime from the perpetrator's perspective. Such growing pains should be expected, says Wolf, since the show's format is much more freeform than the other series.
"It's not as strict a formula as Law & Order and less so than Special Victims," he says. "It depends on the structure of the story. It's an open mystery; most of the time you know who committed the crime - but there are variations on the theme."
At the same time, Special Victims Unit has done quite nicely in its Friday-night timeslot. In its third year, SVU is the most controversial of the Law & Order series. It deals specifically with sex crimes and is difficult to watch some weeks, particularly when the episode deals with younger victims.
"It can be painfully honest, but that's the point," admits Mariska Hargitay, who plays Detective Olivia Benson. "We don't wrap it up in a bow at the end of the episode, which I think is great. Sometimes we find them, sometimes we don't. Sometimes the justice system puts them back on the street, just like in life."
Similarly, Wolf makes no apologies for SVU's contentious subject matter. "It deals with very serious issues in a non-exploitive, non-titillating way," he says. "The number of cops and law enforcement officials who have thanked me the last year has been extraordinary, because reporting of sexual crimes and crimes against women is up significantly in a lot of major cities."
Law & Order and its spinoffs are all filmed on location in New York (unlike NYPD Blue, for example, which is mostly filmed on an L.A. soundstage) but there have been unavoidable production problems this year in the wake of Sept. 11. Ordinarily there would be Law & Order location units all over downtown New York.
Instead, "We can't shoot below 14th Street, we can't shoot on the courthouse steps," says Wolf. "To go to ground zero is a life-altering event because no matter how many times you see it on TV, the area is so much larger than it appears on a TV screen. It is very disturbing."
Regardless, the city of New York has long been an integral character on Law & Order and things are slowly moving back to normal. Cast veteran Jerry Orbach, in his ninth season as Detective Lennie Briscoe, thinks the show has actually become part of the healing process. "I can't go down and physically remove beams from the rubble of 9/11," he says, "but I feel we're helping in some way by the image we're portraying. It's like that old line cops keep saying to me, 'Keep making us look good'."
Ever protective of his progeny, Wolf has been actively campaigning NBC to move Criminal Intent from Sundays at 9 p.m. to Mondays at 10 p.m., which he feels is more suitable for its content (NBC currently has the rookie drama Crossing Jordan in that timeslot). "We're still trying," he says. "You know, it would just be this amazing symmetry - Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10 p.m."
Down the line, Wolf isn't dismissing the possibility of doing a fourth version of Law & Order, although he won't get specific at this point. "Actually, it's going to be Law & Order: C.S.I.," he jokes.
For now, most of Wolf's energy is focused on promoting the more recent entries in the Law & Order franchise - and making sure viewers know they are separate entities. "The only thing identical in all three shows are the title cards and the 'ching-ching'," he says, referring to the ominous soundbite that ends each scene. "The only thing the same is great writing. I think we have the best writers in television, but I'm probably biased."