|Torn from today's news: Not just a vérité catchphrase, but also the mantra for NBC's enduring hit Law & Order. |
In a seemingly impossible feat, the split drama — cops chase the suspects, prosecutors try them — is near a ratings peak in this, its 13th season. And the show has spawned two successful spinoffs, Special Victims Unit and Criminal Intent, that also rank in TV's top 20. It's the first drama in TV history to have three incarnations airing simultaneously.
In an average week, 41 million viewers see at least one of the series on NBC. And that's not counting reruns on USA and TNT, where the original L&O ranks as cable's top non-original drama.
Though Law & Order follows a long line of case-solving hits from Dragnet to Columbo, its penchant for real-life cases are its bread and butter. They tantalize with a whiff of familiarity, but often veer off in another direction to surprise viewers — and to forestall lawsuits.
A recent episode mirroring the case of missing Washington intern Chandra Levy earned the wrath of Carolyn Condit, the wife of the California representative who'd been linked with Levy. Painted as a murderer, she demanded an apology (producers declined), and threatened to sue for defamation.
But several of Law's writers are lawyers themselves, and they skillfully skirt the limits of liability.
"If the viewers understand they are viewing fiction and it is only inspired by recent events, then a claim would probably fail," says First Amendment lawyer Victor Kovner of New York. But "it is possible to do a roman à clef that is so plainly based on identifiable people without even using their name that the mere fact that it's a fictional setting and there's a disclaimer may not suffice." That explains the usual twist.
The show has other distinctions: It rarely goes home with its characters, avoiding personal stories in favor of crime-solving puzzles and legal turns. And it's known for habitual cast changes: Eighteen actors have filled the main series' six principal roles. Usually the actors ask to leave, but producers embrace the turnover: "It's good for the writers to get new characters in," says Criminal Intent executive producer Rene Balcer. "It just revitalizes you and allows you rejigger the dynamics of the show."
Now, creator Dick Wolf has extended the franchise with Crime & Punishment, a documentary series about actual jury trials (no masking here) that returns for a second season this summer.
How far can the shows go? What topics are off limits? Which episodes caused regrets? Creator Dick Wolf and his executive producers — Balcer, Michael Chernuchin (L&O) and Neal Baer (SVU) — talked about the series recently at their New York studio.
Q: Your shows are promoted as being ripped from the headlines, but often there are disclaimers, sometimes even before each episode, describing them as fictional. Can you really have it both ways?
Rene Balcer: I think we rip off the headline, I don't think we rip the body of the story. I think it's kind of fun: People see the headline, see what the story is supposedly about, and there's already a built-in set of expectations from the audience that when we write the stories we can play off of and play against.
Dick Wolf: (The source material is) the front page of the New York Post. People are not going to stop killing in unique and bizarre ways. It's a constantly renewable resource, virtually every morning.
Michael Chernuchin: The country is bombarded by news; people know the story. So for us to just re-create it would be boring; they've seen it already.
Q: But there were cases that got a little too close for some people. The Chandra Levy story, for instance.
Wolf: That was too straightforward an episode. That was a re-creation. It was Carolyn Condit, but you took them through an alternative version of the crime. There was no real issue or twist.
Q:How do you decide what stories to mine for your episodes?
Neal Baer: Everything is fair game. We all have full-time researchers. (Stories) can be generated from Dick, or just reading the paper, or talking to friends.
Q: Do you guys fight over which show gets a certain story?
Wolf: There's a dibs system, which we're constantly re-evaluating. What's happened is, even stories that are similar are done so differently there's a part of me that would like to have a weeklong Law & Order marathon of the same story done by all three shows. Because they'd be completely different.
Q: What are the different sensibilities each producer brings to his show?
Wolf: Michael is much more interested in the intricacies and turns of the legal system as a storytelling device: How the system can become a participant and how the system itself can lead to justice beyond the courtroom. Neal's storytelling is much more scientifically oriented. It's certainly not just the dry procedure — and that's not a knock —CSI's approach to science is drier. His is more humanistic; he is a pediatrician, and he deals with kids. Rene has always been a crafter of mysteries. I think the hallmark of his show is the twists and turns that a good Sherlock Holmes or a good (Raymond) Chandler has.
Q: Has the network ever said no to something?
Wolf: We collectively (have stayed away from) teenage suicide. I've seen the linkage. It is imitative behavior. But NBC has never said, "You can't do that."
Chernuchin: The flip side of that is when the network calls and tells us to do a certain headline, and actually that resulted in my least favorite show. It was the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan story. (The ice skaters were recast as tennis players.)
Wolf: My least favorite episode, because it violates the basic premise of the entire franchise, was the one where Jerry (Orbach's) daughter was murdered.
Q: Because it got into their personal lives?
Wolf: I don't know that many children of police officers, especially first-grade detectives, who have ever been murdered, who are also drug addicts. I thought I was watching NYPD Blue.
Q: Why'd you do it?
Balcer: It was the (1995-96) season, where every actor's contract was up, and the idea was to end the season on a cliffhanger.
Wolf: It was too small a universe for Law & Order. And to me, Jerry was bathetic. But he got to do what he wanted to do: He got to hold somebody in his arms and cry. But he didn't get (Emmy) nominated.
Q: The other controversy was the episode about the Puerto Rican Day parade and the assault on a woman that followed. NBC apologized and refused to air it again.
Wolf: That was ridiculous. That was the network completely folding under. That was the stupidest single community-relations mistake I have ever seen any network make in 25 years. We are equal-opportunity offenders, these guys have offended every minority and ethnic group on the planet. So it left NBC in a situation where (others could say), "Oh, I see, we're not as good as the Puerto Ricans." The only other one that was never rerun on the network — but they didn't preclude us from doing it — is probably still my single favorite episode of Law & Order, "Life Choice," the abortion-clinic bombing. In that show, you did have four or five of the characters on different sides of the abortion question.
Q: Because of 9/11, you canceled plans last year for a Law & Order miniseries about a terrorist plot. What happened?
Wolf: To give you some idea of why we had to cancel, it started out in an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan with 10-year-old kids saying, "Death to America," the brother of one of them coming in who is going to become a martyr and perform a great act. Cut to him coming across the Canadian border in a rental car with a United Arab Emirates passport, coming into New York, blowing up the (subway) shuttle under Times Square and killing how many people? 1,700. And then releasing anthrax.
Baer: We had people coming in from Stanford to give us lectures on bioterrorism, and what was so striking was when we said, "Well, if we had anthrax break through the ventilation systems in a hotel and the spores were on the floor, could that really infect people?" And they said, "Nah, it can't happen, don't worry about it." And then, unfortunately, the truth was as scary as the fiction, and all of the things that were in our miniseries actually happened.
Wolf: We were supposed to start shooting on Sept. 24.
Q: How has Law & Order changed over the years in terms of types of stories? Are the stakes higher now that there's more graphic crime on TV?
Balcer: Are we a little more extreme in our depictions of crime? I'm sure, the bar has been raised to a certain extent, and I think the audience expects it because of what they've seen on the news.
Baer: We don't need to be on cable to show decapitations, bullets going through bodies. Sometimes the crimes on SVU are, as we say at the beginning, heinous crimes, and we leave a lot to the audience's imaginations. We'll lift up the sheets, but we won't see under them. We just don't feel a need to. We're not there to titillate that way.
Chernuchin: And we usually come in after the violence. A key word in network television is relatability. In whatever you do it has to be relatable to the audience, and what a lot of us try to do is make the criminal relatable. If I was in that position, could I commit that murder? To me that's very interesting.
Q: Is there room for yet another spinoff?
Wolf: Sure. NBC already knows what it is.
Q: Are there more? When would this max out?
Wolf: Seven. Every night of the week.