|One common theme among TV critics this year is concern over the proliferation of "colon" shows, i.e., "CSI: ..." or "Law & Order: ...," and so on. They ask, how many of these can be on the air? How many should be on the air?|
Dick Wolf, the man at the helm of the "Law & Order" juggernaut, has a simple answer, "The audience will decide."
So far, the viewing public seems eager to welcome new members to the "CSI" and "L&O" families, each of which grows by one this year. CBS has already launched "CSI: New York" (making three, with "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "CSI: Miami"), and at midseason, NBC adds the courtroom-based drama "Law & Order: Trial by Jury" (making four, with "Law & Order," "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent"). The cast for "Trial by Jury" includes former "Law & Order" (the original, no colon) cast member Jerry Orbach, reprising his role as Detective Lennie Briscoe.
"As Jerry would be the first to tell you," Wolf says, "he has moved beyond the mandatory retirement age of any police force on the planet. Luckily, in New York City, there is the D.A. squad, which is composed of both active-duty and retired detectives. For example, Jerry Giorgio, who is probably the most well-known homicide detective in the history of the NYPD, is in his early 70s and is still on the D.A. squad."
This move left the door open for the hiring of a new partner for Detective Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin) in the ever-rotating cast of the venerable NBC cops-and-lawyers drama, which is filmed, as all the "Law & Order" shows are, in New York.
Beginning with the show's 15th-season premiere on Sept. 22, veteran actor (and former Chicago cop) Dennis Farina joined the cast as slick and stylish Detective Joe Fontana (whose name is suspiciously similar to "Oz" and "Homicide: Life on the Street" writer/producer Tom Fontana, whose New York and Baltimore-based shows have shared many cast members with Wolf's over the years).
"I don't like to think of it as a replacement," Farina says. "I think of it as a reassignment, that Jerry's character is going to one new unit, and I'm coming in from some other unit in a reassignment shuffle.
"I like to say [Fontana's] going to be the type of guy that you wouldn't want to play poker with, and you really never know too much about him. He's a little bit of a mystery. There are some rumors surrounding him: that he's a single guy, and he might dress a little better than some policemen are supposed to and have a little bit more cash than some policemen. There might be some theories about that, but I'm not going to give anything away."
Wolf also assures loyal "Law & Order" fans that, while Lennie Briscoe may be gone, he won't be entirely forgotten.
"There are continuing references, the same way there have been to other characters that have left the show," Wolf says. "We don't go out of our way to explain these cast changes. As I've said for years, 'Law & Order' is a workplace show. It's great when there's something like, 'Oh, remember when Lennie did this ... .' But that's going to be it. There's no real focus on it at all."
Apparently, it wasn't tough getting Farina to agree to come on board.
"Dick and I have been talking about doing something for a while, a couple of years," Farina says. "When Dick said to me, `Jerry is leaving, and he's going to do another show. Would you be interested in coming on?' To me, it was a no-brainer. It's the best writing on television.
"Because, as an actor, when you get up in the morning, and if you look at something that is really not very good, really doesn't make any sense, you just get that in your head, and you say, `I have to go out and try to make some sense out of this and try to make it look good' -- it makes for a very hard day.
"But when you look at an episode or a script of 'Law & Order,' it's like biting into a real good steak or a forkful of really good pasta. You know it immediately."
As to whether he's concerned that "Law & Order" is up against "CSI: New York" (shot, by the way, largely in the Los Angeles area), which just may be its strongest competition yet, Wolf says, "I'd be retarded if I didn't know that. There is no question about it. 'Law & Order' is not going to change. It is hopefully going to be as good or better than it has ever been, and that will come down to the writing.
"The audience is never wrong. The audience will decide. 'Law & Order' has been comfortably winning its time slot for the last seven years. We haven't had real competition. This is real competition. But I think the one thing that has been demonstrated over the past couple of years, is that when there's great programming, more people will come to the set.
"I am a great believer in, the more good shows on, the better it is for all of us."