|Law & Order maestro Dick Wolf knows how to play the press. If there's a controversy somewhere in TV, he'll be ready to jump on it. If there isn't, he may create one. He knows reporters and columnists need material, and he's happy to provide it, usually with a rising voice and outraged tone. |
Appearing before reporters at a news conference Tuesday, Wolf actually ducked a chance to stir things up. Asked if NBC should put Law & Order: Criminal Intent in a 10 p.m. slot (it's at 9 p.m. Sundays), he replied, "No comment."
And when asked if there were anything he was unhappy about, he said, "No, I'm a very happy guy." One reason was that, as he sat onstage, Wolf had beside him executive producers of the four shows he has on NBC: Law & Order; Law & Order: Special Victims Unit; Law & Order: Criminal Intent; and Crime & Punishment, a summer documentary series called "a real-life version of Law & Order."
Wolf says a fourth L&O is also possible, though he's not saying what the idea for it is. And, for ABC, he's working on a new version of Dragnet to premiere in January. "The DNA of Dragnet is in Law & Order, and the DNA of the new Dragnet will have Law & Order's DNA in there, too," Wolf said.
The centerpiece of Wolf's work and reputation is the sprawl of Law & Order. Counting the various replays on cable, Wolf said he had learned that "every week during May, 95.8 million people... saw one of the versions of the show. Which staggered me."
Even the original series remains strong, he said. "Law & Order is the only scripted series in the history of television to have its highest ratings in its 12th season," he said.
Just staying on for 12 seasons is something most shows don't manage. But through consistent storytelling, and subtle differences in tone from one show to the next, the three Law & Orders remain at once fresh and familiar to viewers.
Still, it can be tricky coming up with stories for all three shows, said Law & Order executive producer Michael Chernuchin.
All are set in New York City and draw on the same sources for cases, Chernuchin said. The original show does not have an advantage, he said, because "we want to spread the popularity of the other shows."
"Anything sexual now goes to SVU," he said. "Kids go to SVU, and I think elderly people go to SVU. Rene (Balcer, executive producer of Criminal Intent) and I fight it out for stories. If there's a story that lends itself to a back half, to a legal question, that comes to Law & Order."
And they do so even through changes, including some in the coming season. (Law & Order starts new episodes on Oct. 2, SVU on Sept. 27 and Criminal Intent on Sept. 29.)
Dianne Wiest, who played district attorney Nora Lewin on the original Law & Order, has left the series and a replacement has yet to be cast.
Drawing again on famous cases for inspiration, Law & Order this season will include variations on the John Walker Lindh case and on "the CEOs walking away with billions while their investors walk away with nothing," said Chernuchin.
"We're going to have some gritty stories this year, because I like writing those," he said. "The perfect Law & Order for me is one where our guys win at the end, and feel bad about it, or lose and feel good about it. I don't want anything cut and dried.... This year, all the characters are going to have a different opinion about everything."
The newest show in the franchise, Criminal Intent, will continue to be a Sherlock Holmes-like mystery, with Vincent D'Onofrio as its Holmes, police Detective Robert Goren.
In the show's second season, Goren will get his own Moriarty, "a very attractive young woman who will be recurring, hopefully, over the next few seasons," Balcer said. She will be played by Olivia D'Abo.
He also hopes viewers will get to know more about the supporting regulars, including police Capt. James Deakins (Jamey Sheridan) and District Attorney Ron Carver (Courtney B. Vance).
"What's fun about them is building in conflicts, especially between Courtney and Vince," Balcer said.
As for plot lines, Balcer said, "We have a story taking off on the Georgia crematoria story that was in the news last May, with a very unusual twist. And one script deals with a boy genius."
At Special Victims Unit, which has already finished six episodes, B.D. Wong returns as forensic psychiatrist George Huang, now a series regular, and Judith Light will reprise her role as the district-attorney boss of Alexandra Cabot (Stephanie March).
"We have guest stars," said SVU executive producer Neal Baer, among them old-time movie star Jane Powell in a story about abuse of the elderly, and Pam Grier as an assistant U.S. attorney locking horns with Detective Elliott Stabler (Chris Meloni).
Even though the shows go in different directions, they all have that Law & Order in their names. And that creates opportunities they might not have otherwise.
"The hardest thing on TV is launching a show, and getting people to tune in," Balcer said. "The fact that Law & Order's name is on the show probably saved NBC several millions of dollars in advertising. Where a show like Alias is probably paying, I don't know, $10 for every pair of eyeballs that's tuned in, NBC only has to pay 10 cents.
"It's an advantage," he said. "But over the years, all of these franchises establish their own identities. You could just call it Special Victims Unit or Criminal Intent, and the shows will do quite well."