|How LAW & ORDER--the true-blue show. the relentless reruns, the sensational new spin-off--has become TV's most arresting development |
On LAW & ORDER, the audience is served by two separate but equally important groups. The writers, directors, and producers who've made the show one of the savviest, most addictive crime dramas on television today -- not to mention the longest-running -- and the actors and actresses who miraculously manage to make New York City cops and lawyers look sorta sexy. This is their story....
If this magazine article really were an episode of Law & Order, right about now we'd be strolling down a darkly lit Manhattan avenue, minding our own business -- returning home from the opera, perhaps -- when suddenly we'd stumble upon a dead body in a doorway. Or slumped in a parked car. Or poking out of a manhole. Whatever. The point is, we'd be inside what the show's writers call ''the teaser'': those crucial two minutes before the opening credits that begin every episode's famously plot-twisty, unfailingly topical hour-long journey through the criminal justice system.
In our particular teaser, however, we won't bumble onto a crime scene. Instead, we'll encounter a different sort of unsolved mystery: the case of the 10-year-old legal drama that was originally turned down by two networks (and almost canceled by a third), which has undergone more cast changes than Cats, and yet is currently more popular than ever. A show that has not only survived an entire decade -- in itself an accomplishment only a handful of dramas can claim -- but has also grown into a TV phenomenon, an entertainment empire that's now spreading across the tube like a pre-Giuliani-era crime wave.
Wherever you are, whatever time it is, there's probably a Law & Order episode on TV right now -- or soon will be. Aside from the original Wednesday-night airings on NBC, you can find reruns on cable's A&E channel four times a day. There's also NBC's new Monday-night spin-off, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit -- a grittier, grimier drama loosely based on the NYPD's real-life sex crimes division -- which is also in repeats on the USA Network on Sunday nights. Next year, TNT stakes out a piece of the action, airing Law & Order reruns from the last three seasons (A&E will continue repeating episodes from the first seven). And next fall NBC has slated yet another Law & Order series, Deadline NYC, about an investigative journalist who may end up covering some of the same cases being litigated by the characters on the other shows.
All in all, it amounts to the most ambitious franchising of a TV series in network history, a trans-channel web of interconnected shows in which plot and character crossovers will be as common as commercials. ''That's the master plan,'' says Dick Wolf, the 52-year-old veteran producer who created and oversees all the Law & Order shows. ''If we pull it off, it'll be like Dickens' London, where the characters freely transit between the various shows and it's all part of one big TV universe.''
In other words: today Wednesday nights, tomorrow the world. How did it happen? When did Law & Order start annexing the airwaves? And can Wolf really pull off his audacious master plan? We'll start the investigation in a second. But first, since this teaser is just about over, there's one other thing we have to do. After all, if this article really were a Law & Order episode, the next thing you'd hear would sound something like... Cha-chung!
I have this theory about long-running tv shows," ruminates Sam Waterston, who for five years has starred as L&O's Jack McCoy, the crusading assistant district attorney who sometimes cuts constitutional corners and doesn't always get his man. "There's something about the fundamental structure of a show like ours that says something people recognize to be true in their own lives. That's why they can watch it over and over and over again."
Waterston is taking a brief recess in his dressing room on Law & Order's soundstage, a cramped compound lumped alongside the massive Chelsea Piers complex on Manhattan's Lower West Side (at this point in our episode, we'd flash a bogus New York City street address on the bottom of your screen--972356 West End Ave., cha-chung!--which would translate to a spot smack dab in the Hudson River). Parts of the show, like street exteriors and apartment interiors, are filmed on location. Everything else is shot in the soundstage's surprisingly dainty but authentically dingy squad room, its cozy wood-paneled DA's offices, and its even cozier fake courtroom. If the real criminal justice system had a Mini-Me, it would look a lot like this place.
"The deal with Law & Order," Waterston continues, "is that its world is indifferent to its characters' personal lives. Private lives don't matter on this show except as they affect people's jobs. That's the way the show is structured. And I think audiences like that. It's real."
He's right about one thing: L&O is not a typical cuddly character-driven network drama. After five years, for instance, pretty much all we know about McCoy's personal life is that he likes to drink (perhaps too much), that he enjoys the company of attractive female assistants (perhaps too much), and that he owns a motorcycle jacket (although we have yet to see the motorcycle).
Instead, Law & Order is almost entirely story-driven. Its rotating stable of writers--all of whom, oddly enough, live in Los Angeles, where they scour newspaper clippings for plot inspirations (sometimes getting ahead of the news; last year's episode about a school shooting was actually written before the Littleton tragedy)--are under orders to keep it strictly business. "If it's not pertinent to the plot, it ends up on the floor," says executive producer and head writer Rene Balcer. "We're trying to cram 20 pounds of show into a 10-pound bag, so there isn't room for anything else."
"It's very much like Dragnet," agrees Jerry Orbach, whose corned-beef-on-wry character Det. Lennie Briscoe is nothing like Joe Friday. "They only throw in a little personal thing once in a great while--like that story arc where my daughter was involved in a drug thing and got killed. But mostly you don't learn much about us."
This by-the-book approach to TV drama at least partly explains how Law & Order has accrued such a huge following over the years. It allows uninitiated viewers (like all those latecomers discovering the show's reruns on A&E) to jump into the series without having to worry about who's sleeping with whom and all those other messy episodic plot points that junk up most dramas. Also, it makes cast changes a lot easier. And on Law & Order, that's an extremely attractive quality.
This season, for example, Jesse L. Martin (who played Calista Flockhart's beau on Ally McBeal last year) replaces Benjamin Bratt (who plays Julia Roberts' boyfriend in real life). He stars as Det. Ed Green (see story on page 33), who may or may not have a gambling problem ("He may also be prone to excessive force," Martin adds). Last year's newcomer, Angie Harmon (Baywatch Nights), who plays ADA Abbie Carmichael (replacing Carey Lowell's Jamie Ross, who previously replaced Jill Hennessy's Claire Kincaid), explains the old switcheroo:
"There are always comparisons," she says. "People grow to love these characters. But it's not like I'm playing Jamie Ross. I mean, besides the obvious fact that Carey's a blond and I'm a brunet, they're very different. Mine is a lot tougher. She's a hang-'em-all Texan. When I hear comparisons, I'm like 'Do you people actually watch the show?'"
Of course, not all the cast changes have gone smoothly. Waterston's predecessor, Michael Moriarty, left the show in a flameout so spectacular his career is still smoldering. In 1993, Moriarty denounced Janet Reno as a "mindless attack dog," all but accusing the Attorney General, NBC, and Wolf of conspiring to muzzle the conservative politics of his fictional character. (He later ran for President; this before Warren Beatty and Donald Trump made it the hot celeb trend.) "His brain crossed wires," says exec producer Ed Sherin. "The synapses weren't working. He lost it." (Moriarty, who has since moved to Canada, couldn't be reached for comment.)
That same year, Wolf and NBC actually did enter into a conspiracy--sort of--when the net decided the show needed less cha-chung and more boom-chick-a-boom. "In March of the third season, I got a call from [then] NBC president Warren Littlefield," Wolf recalls. "He said, 'I'm giving you your cancellation notice a year early.' He said the show was the most testosterone-driven series on television, that virtually no women were watching, and that if I didn't put women in the show it couldn't survive. I told him the only way to put women on the show is to fire some of the men."
Exit Richard Brooks (who played ADA Paul Robinette) and Dann Florek (Capt. Donald Cragen), at least temporarily. Although both actors found themselves replaced (Hennessy got Brooks' job in the DA's office; S. Epatha Merkerson took over as squad room boss), their characters haven't completely disappeared. Brooks brought back Robinette (now in private practice) for an L&O guest spot, while Florek has returned full-time to run the precinct on SVU.
No other cast changes appear to be imminent--but that hasn't prevented Law & Order's stars from contemplating inventive exit strategies should the pink slip ever toll for them. "Maybe he could die in the arms of a young lady," says Orbach, contemplating his character's demise. "He could have a heart attack, like Nelson Rockefeller. Get caught tied up in a hotel room." He pauses to imagine the unlikely scene. "Poor Lennie."
I wish i could tell you that it was a totally creative decision," Wolf says sheepishly, recalling how, in 1988, he first came up with the idea for Law & Order. He's trying to take a seat in the restaurant at New York's Pierre Hotel, where he's just arrived from L.A. to attend a party for the prince of Monaco (Wolf is an honorary consul to the postage-stamp-size country). But even though this onetime Madison Avenue whiz kid (in the '70s, he cooked up National Airlines' notoriously suggestive "Fly me" spots) is now one of TV's hottest producers, he's still not permitted to sit in the Pierre's entirely empty restaurant if he isn't going to order lunch.
"In 1988 there was no aftermarket for one-hour shows," he continues after a waiter fussily escorts him to the also-empty bar. "So I was trying to come up with an hour show that could be split into two half-hour shows for syndication. And then one day it hit me: cops and lawyers!"
Ah, the exquisite agony of the artistic process. Wolf first pitched the idea to the Fox network, huffing and puffing until Barry Diller--then CEO--was blown away by the concept; Wolf claims Diller offered him a 13-episode commitment, but called two days later to renege. Next Wolf pitched the show to then-CBS prez Kim LeMasters, who liked the idea so much he commissioned a pilot. Then LeMasters saw the pilot he'd ordered, and called to change his mind. "He decided there were no breakout stars," Wolf says, nearly growling at the memory.
Finally, in 1990, two years after making the pilot, Wolf found a net that was (to shift fairy-tale references) juuust right and Law & Order found a home on NBC's prime-time lineup. Which is where the show might have stayed, burning out after a respectable five- or six-year run. Except, in 1994, Wolf signed what he calls "the worst deal in the history of TV." He sold the syndication rights for L&O--the full hour-length shows, not the 30-minute slices he'd originally planned on peddling--to cable's A&E network. "They picked it up for an insane number of runs for no money at all," he says, shaking his head. "But it ended up working out in the long run."
Oh, it worked out, all right. Nobody knows how many of the 18 million viewers who now tune in to Law & Order every Wednesday night discovered the show on cable, but it's no accident that the series' ratings on NBC have risen proportionately to A&E's audience (the channel is now piped into about 75 million homes). Wolf hopes for similar results from a groundbreaking Special Victims Unit deal; the USA Network will air SVU reruns a mere 13 days after their NBC premiere.
"Law & Order was more than a franchise--it was becoming a brand name," Wolf says. "So having spent all that time in advertising, I asked myself, What could I do to extend the brand? And Special Victims Unit was one of the ideas. I have at least two others that could go under the brand," he adds, hinting at more layers (and lawyers) in his master plan. "I've got ideas stacked up over my head like jets at La Guardia...."
First things first. Before anything else, Wolf will have to keep Special Victims Unit from becoming a special victim itself--which may not be so easy given where NBC has plunked it on the schedule. Not only is SVU saddled with an unfortunate 9 p.m. slot (cramping the sex crime drama's racy 10 p.m.-style story lines), but it also faces fierce competition from Fox's Ally McBeal (which traditionally draws a large female audience) and ABC's Monday Night Football (which traditionally draws the entire male audience). So far, the numbers have been promising but inconclusive--around 13 million viewers a week--but there's no question about one thing: Wolf won't have 10 years to make the show a hit.
That's a fact of life that hangs over the Special Victims Unit set like an ominous, unsettling mist (then again, SVU's soundstage is in New Jersey, so maybe there's another explanation for that purplish cloudlike thing in the sky). Everyone involved in the show is keenly aware that after only a month on air, some tweaks are inevitable. "Which episodes did you see?" asks Mariska Hargitay, the actress who plays Olivia Benson, the chip-on-her-Calvin Klein-shoulder-pad detective who, along with Christopher Meloni's Det. Elliot Stabler, toils for SVU's sex crime squad. "Because the first one is kind of weird. I come off like a real hothead in that episode. It gets better."
The show has already proved clever enough to reserve a squad room desk for Richard Belzer's Det. John Munch, the deliciously deadpan conspiracy wacko who helped make the late great Homicide: Life on the Street one of NBC's finest hours--but here's what changes to expect. For starters, although SVU was never intended to be split into 30-minute segments for syndication, it's going to be restructured more along the original Law & Order model, with cops in the first part and courtroom scenes in the second (a special sex crimes prosecutor, still uncast, is being written into future scripts). Also, expect a rollback in the personal department.
"Dick originally said he wanted 20 percent personal stuff, 80 percent legal," says SVU's head writer, Robert Palm, with a tinge of nervousness in his chuckle. "Now he's talking about bringing it down to about 7 percent."
Take away another six percent and it'll almost be like L&O. Minus one critical element: It still won't have Steven Hill, the ex-Actors Studio star who, as the charmingly crusty DA Adam Schiff (L&O's only irreplaceable character), has single-handedly raised the craft of eating a sandwich to heights even his old acting teacher Lee Strasberg couldn't have imagined.
Hill, of course, is also the one who closes most of the episodes with a snappily delivered, sublimely crabby ironic crack. Like this one: "Nobody eats on TV like I do," he says, nibbling a lemon tart, theatrically spewing crumbs all over his dressing room. "That's the reason the show's been so successful. They've all tried to copy me. But they can't. They don't know my secret." He takes another crumbly bite. "And they never will."