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How 'Law & Order' rewrote the rules

The by-the-book crime show has undermined TV movies, figured out the perfect series formula (stories, not stars) and succeeded with spinoffs. This is its story. Chung-chung.

May 18, 2003|Brian Lowry | Times Staff Writer

In hindsight, it all makes perfect 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 -- it's only once been awarded the Emmy for dramatic series -- "Law & Order" has nonetheless 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 pervasiveness 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. Turns out it hasn't been quite that long.

Underscoring its singularity in contemporary television, the series that premiered in 1990 reaches its 300th episode this week, 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 last three seasons -- something it had never done previously.

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 such original series as FX's "The Shield" and USA's "Monk." Adding 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 this summer.

The signature series already has been renewed into 2005 -- assuring it a 15-year run surpassed only by "Gunsmoke," which ran two decades, among hourlong 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" already 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 last week to move "Special Victims Unit" to Tuesday nights this fall.)

James Arness may 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's never been beholden to just one. Instead, like workplaces all over the country, old faces disappear and new ones show up, and the enterprise just keeps chugging along. Indeed, 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 -- 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."

REVIVING DRAMA

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