|Dick Wolf knows who's responsible for the TV crime wave headed your way this fall: Dick Wolf. |
The creator of NBC's Law & Order rattles off stats about his franchise, which has yielded Special Victims Unit, Criminal Intent and the summer reality series Crime & Punishment.
"Every week during May, 95.8 million people -- unduplicated viewers -- saw one of the versions of the show, which staggered me," Wolf says. He brags that Law & Order is "the only scripted series in the history of television to have its highest ratings in its 12th season."
Envious programmers are determined to duplicate his success. In the fall, CBS will introduce four crime-related series, including a CSI spinoff set in Miami. Fox will go a glossy route with Fastlane, a sleek, violent series aimed at young adults. NBC will offer Boomtown, a stylish, Los Angeles-based drama, after Criminal Intent on Sundays. And Wolf will do an updated Dragnet for ABC at midseason.
Wolf takes credit for the trend because of Law & Order. "That's the franchise that's working," he says. "Every really successful show invites repetition, but usually the original is still the greatest."
NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker agrees "the tremendous glut" of cop shows can be traced to Law & Order -- and adds that there are drawbacks because of it.
"One of the biggest problems this fall is going to be the promotion of these crime dramas," he says. "It adds a sameness to network television that's a shame. We always hurt each other when we do the same thing."
CBS President Les Moonves says he studied the Law & Order model in expanding CSI, currently the highest-rated drama. The network will examine the ratings for CSI: Miami, the first spinoff, before deciding whether to do more.
Wolf finds differences between the L&O and CSI styles. "CSI, from what I can see, is kind of like you could almost re-use the scripts in Miami," he says. "It's not quite the same methodology, which is creating a brand as opposed to duplicating the show."
The CSI producers maintain that their Miami series will be quite different from the original. They say the Miami characters will be more extroverted and have more conflicts. The Las Vegas-set CSI is a night show while CSI: Miami will be a day show filled with color and ocean.
Still, CSI has a long way to go to match the Wolf brand, one he compares to Campbell's soup. "If you want tomato or chicken noodle, they're all going to be good if they've got that red label on it," he says. From the L&O brand, viewers expect "a certain level of quality writing and production value, which we've been able to supply."
The various Law & Order soups will have different flavors this fall. Oscar winner Dianne Wiest is leaving Law & Order, and her character will be replaced by a conservative district attorney, executive producer Michael Chernuchin says.
"We're doing a lot of the after-effects of 9-11 -- nothing to do with the actual terrorism, but the way the world has changed since then," Chernuchin says. "There's more of a law-and-order attitude around the country right now. The Fourth Amendment is dwindling a bit."
On Special Victims Unit, Broadway actor B.D. Wong becomes a regular, and Judith Light returns as the SVU bureau chief. Mary Kay Place and Jane Powell act in an episode about elder abuse. Pam Grier plays an assistant U.S. attorney. Sharon Lawrence portrays a serial killer.
Criminal Intent will do headline-inspired episodes on a boy genius and a notorious crematoria. The show also brings on a recurring villain who will function like a Professor Moriarty to the Sherlock Holmes of Detective Robert Goren (Vincent D'Onofrio). Criminal Intent is more of a star vehicle than the other series, Wolf says, because it gives D'Onofrio a career-defining role like Peter Falk's Columbo.
Setting any Law & Order series outside New York is unthinkable for Wolf. "It is kind of Dickens' London that those characters can all interact," he says. "It's pretty hard if one cast is in Chicago."
Wolf has an idea for what the next Law & Order could be, but he's not sharing it. "The whole secret of the success of the shows [is] the writers," he says. "Once the writing goes, the shows are over."