|It could have taken longer, but it wasn't likely.|
Since many crime shows stay on the lookout for ripped-from-the-headlines ideas, the saga of the late Anna Nicole Smith was a virtual lock to be dramatized before this television season ended. NBC's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" got to the gate first, and producer Dick Wolf's franchise airs the resulting episode Tuesday, May 8.
Subtitled "Bombshell," the tale casts guest star Kristy Swanson as Lorelei Mailer, an ex-stripper and much-older billionaire's widow who dies shortly after her son does -- and soon after she gives birth to a daughter. Her last companion (David Cross, "Arrested Development") fights others over her money, but it's up to a DNA test to determine who gets the inheritance.
Hmmm. Close enough to the real thing?
Police detectives Wheeler and Logan (Julianne Nicholson, Chris Noth) are on the case in the story, in which filmmaker-actor Peter Bogdanovich ("The Last Picture Show") reprises his earlier "Criminal Intent" guest role as a magazine publisher.
"The good news and the bad news is that we've been cutting it close this year," executive producer Warren Leight says of the gap between filming and airing "Criminal Intent" episodes. "We've been able to maneuver more quickly, so I would have been surprised [if another show had tackled a similar plot first]."
Finding the right performer for the Anna Nicole-ish part proved relatively free of problems. Not only did Swanson want to see the script as soon as she was approached, she had the right physical look, since she and her "Skating With Celebrities" partner (and now fiance) Lloyd Eisler welcomed a son in February.
"I didn't plan on going back to work for about six months after Magnus was born," Swanson explains, "because I thought I'd have to lose the weight and get everyone settled and comfortable. When this opportunity came up, the role was interesting and my weight wasn't a factor. The first questions to my agent were, 'How does she look?' and 'How is she feeling?' I'm kind of tough, so I just bit the bullet and went, and it was totally worth it."
The original Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the 1992 movie, Swanson had been following the Anna Nicole developments, though she concedes that wasn't hard.
"You couldn't really avoid being up on it," Swanson says. "No matter what channel you watched, there it was. When I took the role, I went onto YouTube and saw all these different interviews she had done over the years, so I got a good feel of who she was and what she was like. I also talked to some people who knew her, including her old hairdresser, so I did my research."
At the same time, Swanson didn't necessarily want to impersonate Smith.
"It isn't exactly that, but it kind of is exactly that," she says. "This isn't Anna Nicole, it's Lorelei, but it's the same tragic character."
Claiming surprise at "this much attention in advance of its airing," Leight believes the "Criminal Intent" story mirrors "what we're seeing with people like Britney [Spears] and Lindsay Lohan, something approaching a celebration of self-destruction. There's some comment about that in our show. It's a bit of a high-wire act, but Kristy's performance is really intelligent and character-driven. She's one of the most methodical actors I've ever seen, in terms of preparation."
Last week, "Criminal Intent" based another scenario on a recent news story, a love triangle involving astronauts.
"It's probably what you would call 'low-hanging fruit,'" Leight says. "By this time of the year, there's a certain amount of battle fatigue that sets in among the staff. We always try to use these things as jumping-off points. Sometimes, they're more overt than covert."
Leight recognizes the danger of being labeled exploitative with scripts that barely disguise actual situations, but he notes that suggestions are always around.
"An episode that we were hoping to do fell through," he says, "and I went out just to get a cup of coffee and walk it off. I picked up the paper, and both the stories were in there. I thought, 'OK.' The two episodes that follow these are the exact opposite, though, not taken from well-known or existing headlines."
A bonus in differentiating "Criminal Intent" plots, in Leight's view, is the series' alternating teams of lead characters. Goren and Eames (Vincent D'Onofrio, Kathryn Erbe) were the sleuths probing the astronaut affair, but even with that, the producer agrees the biggest challenge in fictionalizing true life is to make the writer-generated figures believable.
"The solution is to make the characters real, as opposed to just plot vehicles," Leight says. "What we strive for is some sense of empathy, rather than ironic distance or mocking. If they're real people you care about, I feel a little less corrupt."