The woman standing in the back doorway of a downtown San Pedro beauty shop gazed at a battered van moving slowly in the parking lot.
Her eyes widened when the vehicle parked a few doors down and a grungy, long-haired driver got out. Seconds later, undercover cops hiding inside a store rushed out into the lot. The driver fled but was chased by one of the cops.
The customer didn't appear too alarmed by the fracas, though — possibly because she could see the film crew positioned nearby. When the director yelled "Cut!" she shrugged and walked back to her chair to get her hair colored.
The woman was an eyewitness not to a crime but to a scene being filmed for "Law & Order: Los Angeles," the latest spinoff of NBC's landmark "Law & Order," which ended its 20-year run this year after tying the record as the longest-running drama in TV history. Running down the bad guys in this scene were two of the show's stars, Skeet Ulrich and Corey Stoll, who play detective partners. Although the shabby lot seemed an unlikely location for a major new network series, producers said such unknown, out-of-the-way sites are scheduled to be a trademark of the series.
The arrival Wednesday of "Law & Order: Los Angeles" — or "LOLA," it's more catchy informal moniker — simultaneously marks a celebratory beginning and a bittersweet end in the saga of the groundbreaking franchise created by Dick Wolf.
"Law & Order" helped cement the popularity of the police procedural, launch two successful spinoffs and once helped lift NBC to a position of dominance. Now Wolf and the network hope that the sunnier "LOLA" will be a fresh spark for the brand. "Law & Order" fans will see much of the familiar dramatic formula that bounced between detectives and legal prosecutors.
"I really would have loved these shows to coexist," Wolf said. "It's exactly the same show and yet totally different. It's got a very different vibe. We've got an extraordinary cast, and it's in the best tradition of the brand."
But the premiere of "LOLA" is also a pointed reminder to Wolf of the demise of its groundbreaking predecessor. The drama did not have a formal series finale: Wolf had expected that "Law & Order" would continue at least one more season and break the 20-year record for longevity set by "Gunsmoke." Even after it was canceled in May, he maintained optimism that it might be revived by another network. But soon he accepted that "the mothership," as it was affectionately called, was truly grounded.
The 63-year-old Wolf is still stung by the show's departure.
"'Law & Order' holds a unique place in my heart," he said. "If I were to live another 63 years, nothing I could do could surpass the mothership in terms of breaking new ground. Not having it continue was the ultimate disappointment. Nobody expected it to be canceled. Hundreds of people who worked on the show were thrown out into the street without much warning. That really hurts. Breaking the record would have been the cherry on top of the sundae."
Still, Wolf said there was almost a karmic feel to the quick, unsentimental shutdown: "It turned out to be the perfect ending. It's the rhythm of life. Everything in television is under a death sentence. You just don't know when the date of execution is."
NBC's prime-time entertainment president, Angela Bromstad, said developing "LOLA" made the decision to end "Law & Order" easier.
"I'm a huge 'Law & Order' junkie, and this was a move that was not taken lightly," Bromstad said. "Dick knows I have a huge passion for 'Law & Order' and the brand. I felt we had really explored that world completely, and it was hard to make it seem fresh. This is an important brand for our network, and this is a way we could make it work."
In addition to Ulrich and Stoll, the cast includes Rachel Ticotin, Regina Hall and Peter Coyote. Bringing extra star power is the combo of Oscar nominee Terrence Howard ("Hustle & Flow"), who will play Dist. Atty. Jonah Dekker, and film and Broadway veteran Alfred Molina ("An Education," "Spider-Man 2"), who will play Assistant Dist. Atty. Ricardo Morales. The two actors will appear in alternating episodes.
The new show maintains the "ripped-from-the-headlines" approach of "Law & Order," and viewers of the first two episodes will recognize veiled references to Dina and Lindsay Lohan and the Charles Manson "family." The tabloid website TMZ is prominently mentioned. However, these cops don't wear trench coats, and the visuals are mostly bright and colorful. And while "Law & Order" rarely showed the home life of the cops, one of the featured characters will be Ulrich's wife (Teri Polo), a retired police officer.
Wolf is keenly aware of the high expectations surrounding the brand: "We will not be held to the same standard as other new shows are. I'm not complaining. But the audiences for the mothership and 'SVU' are pretty critical in terms of their response to this material. We have to get the original fans into the tent."
If there are initial anxieties among the cast and crew, it wasn't obvious during the location shoot in San Pedro. The mood was light in spite of the hot sun and less-than-glamorous surroundings. During a break, Ulrich ("Jericho") and Stoll ("Lucky Number Slevin"), who did not know each other before the show, acted like old buddies.
"This is a lot of fun," said Ulrich. "There's been a rush and a steep learning curve, but it's great to play a detective where there's always a puzzle to be solved. Working with Corey has been great — we clicked from the moment we met."
Added Stoll: "Everything has been a blur, but we just popped from the start. We hope the show does the same."