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'Law & Order' still prevails with viewers

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

By Brian Lowry, Los Angeles Times

In hindsight, it all makes sense that a drama about cops and lawyers with an easily changeable cast -- so self-contained that any episode could be watched whenever -- would be the perfect formula to feed the ever-hungry TV beast.

From its beginning, it anticipated the contemporary audience's short attention spans and by design rendered most fact-based TV movies obsolete.

Yet if "Law & Order" has become a model format for the modern TV drama, its roots are humbler. Even series creator Dick Wolf couldn't have anticipated that a program launched when dramas were in decline would survive through a second golden age for the genre, with the possibility of carrying that banner well into the 21st century.

Never TV's top-rated show, nor its most decorated -- only once has it been awarded the Emmy for dramatic series -- "Law & Order" nonetheless has managed to be a show that fans of pulpy crime stories could appreciate, and that devotees of literate, smartly acted drama could embrace.

Thanks to its pervasive presence on cable, to say nothing of NBC's reliance on its reruns to plug holes in the schedule, it seems the criminal justice series is on all the time and has been on forever.

Underscoring its singularity in contemporary television, the series that premiered in 1990 reaches its 300th episode tonight, a longevity feat unheard of since "Dallas" and "Knots Landing" went off the air in 1991 and '93, respectively.

Unlike those shows, or more highly regarded successes such as "L.A. Law" or "The X-Files," "Law & Order" shows little sign of slowing down, and it has even turned itself into a franchise -- spinning off two successful companions without diminishing what NBC likes to call "the mother ship."

Unlike most shows, the cops-and-lawyers drama actually started delivering its biggest audiences after more than a decade on the air, finishing in the Top 10 the past three seasons -- something it had not done before.

And "Law & Order" continues to be a rival-slayer, with CBS and ABC repeatedly throwing fresh dramas up against it, only to fail. This season it was "Presidio Med" and "MDs," neither of which lasted long.

Its durability doesn't end there. "Law & Order" reruns on TNT occasionally draw more viewers than original series such as FX's "The Shield" and USA's "Monk." Add those telecasts to NBC originals and encore showings of "Criminal Intent" and "Special Victims Unit" on the USA network, and you can see something with "Law & Order" in the title more than 25 times in an average week. Even a so-called "reality" version with actual district attorneys, "Crime & Punishment," fared well enough last year to prompt its return at 10 p.m. June 1.

The signature series has been renewed into 2005 -- assuring it a 15-year run surpassed only by "Gunsmoke," which ran two decades, among hour-long prime-time dramas. "Dallas," 'Knots Landing" and "Bonanza" each survived 14 years.

Wolf, the ringmaster orchestrating this three-show circus, makes no bones about his desire to put "Gunsmoke's" record out to pasture and run at least 21 years. Moreover, he says, concepts for fourth and fifth editions of the "brand" exist. (Insiders say a fourth hour has been held up as part of the negotiations with NBC over the long-term fate of the existing trio, a situation potentially complicated by the network's decision to move "Special Victims Unit" to Tuesday nights this fall.)

James Arness might have looked a bit haggard by the time "Gunsmoke" rode into the sunset, but no such limitations impede "Law & Order." Although the show calls on many of New York's top actors, it has never been beholden to just one. Instead, like workplaces all over the country, old faces disappear and new ones show up, and the enterprise keeps chugging along. On this show, the workplace is everything.

"There's no way to really collapse the franchise unless there's a complete fall of the criminal justice system," says Walon Green, veteran writer of the film "The Wild Bunch" (1969), who worked on the program early in its run and has more recently overseen another one of Wolf's shows: his ABC revival of "Dragnet," to be renamed "L.A. Dragnet" in the fall.

In hindsight -- and hindsight is key here -- Wolf concocted the perfect TV concept, a series in which every episode is blissfully self-contained and the focus on story is so steadfast that actors can be shuttled in and out without breaking stride.

"That's a credit to the writers, not the show," Wolf says, flanked in his company's office by some of those people -- Green, Michael Chernuchin, Rene Balcer -- who have kept the machinery clicking. "It's always the writing. There have been 17 actors in the cast, and they're all really good actors, but they don't make up the lines."

Among other things, "Law & Order" helped undermine the TV movie business with its reliance on "ripped from the headlines" stories. Movie producers were hard-pressed to compete with a series that could turn around episodes considerably faster -- and often better -- in a concise one-hour package. Indeed, the series' second episode was inspired by subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz.

Although Wolf admits that he didn't foresee the show's longevity, its potential impact on the TV movie of the week arose when he first pitched the series to the late Brandon Tartikoff, NBC's programming chief at the time. "I told Brandon that in the first meeting," Wolf recalls. "I said, 'If this works, it'll put movies of the week out of business, because we will be on the air in half the time that you can make any movie about any subject.'"

"Law & Order" is not alone in replacing cast members. Think of the doctors and nurses who've moved through "ER's" emergency room or the assortment of cops who've spent time in "NYPD Blue's" precinct.

But what is rare about "Law & Order's" actor shuffle is the show's dogged devotion to putting the story front and center.

To the extent that "Law & Order" has a heart, it emerges in bits and pieces. Snippets of characters' lives are revealed, from the past drinking problem of Jerry Orbach's cop to the ailing wife of a former partner (Benjamin Bratt) to Steven Hill's onetime district attorney, his lip quivering, watching as his dying spouse was quietly taken off life-support.

When it's time to say goodbye to a character, the series seldom dwells on it. George Dzundza's character, one of the original cops, died in the line of duty. Chris Noth's hot-tempered detective (before the actor become "Sex and the City's" Mr. Big) punched out a congressman, leading to an off-screen demotion. The prosecutor played by Jill Hennessy, now starring in NBC's "Crossing Jordan," died in a car accident.

For all its success, compared with headline-grabbing programs such as "ER," "The West Wing" or "NYPD Blue," at a certain level "Law & Order" almost flies under the radar. The series did win an Emmy for outstanding drama in 1997, but that's the lone statuette from 11 consecutive best-series nominations. It shares the record for most consecutive best-series nominations with "M*A*S*H" and "Cheers."

At this point, there are few working New York City actors who haven't boarded the flagship, which has featured more than 8,000 speaking parts. Wolf, meanwhile, is fond of saying that the perfect "Law & Order" episode has yet to be written -- namely, one that tackles a controversial issue and finds all six characters holding a different viewpoint, "and they're all right."

As perplexing as that might sound, if Wolf has his way, the writers of "Law & Order" should have at least until 2011 to figure it out.

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