'Law & Order,' facing obstacles, persists

August 21, 1991|By Jane Hall | Jane Hall,Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK -- Like the city where it is filmed, "Law & Order" has a lot going against it.

NBC's realistic cops-and-lawyers series is a serious one-hour drama at a time when one-hour dramas are considered an endangered species by TV studios because they are expensive to produce and harder to sell in syndication than half-hour sitcoms. It is also the only weekly broadcast TV drama being filmed in New York City.

In contrast to the days when "Naked City," "The Defenders" and other weekly series called New York home, the city today has a reputation among producers as a nice place to visit (for a few exterior shots to give an authentic feel to the story), but not one where you'd want to live.

The only other prime-time network series shot here is "The Cosby Show."

Shooting a dramatic series amid the rude joys of New York City, producers say, costs about 20 percent more than fabricating Manhattan on a Los Angeles back lot.

But like the city, "Law & Order" survives. It overcame the obstacles to win good reviews and solid ratings in its debut last season. Renewed for a second year, "Law & Order" has been filming new episodes here this month in preparation for its fall kickoff Sept. 17, Tuesdays at 10 p.m.

Each episode of "Law & Order" follows one crime, from the investigation by detectives to the trial by the district attorney's office. The series originally was developed for CBS, but the network passed on it after the pilot was completed two years ago.

NBC executives liked the concept but were not sure that it could be sustained, so Dick Wolf, the creator and executive producer, wrote six episodes to prove to them that it could.

Many of the plot lines are drawn from actual New York City cases, such as the Hedda Nussbaum-Lisa Steinberg child-abuse trial, while others create so-far-fictional nightmares, such as an episode where a man was mugged for a forced kidney transplant.

Telescoping a police investigation and trial into an hour obviously simplifies reality. But Michael Moriarty, who stars as an assistant district attorney, says, "I think we're as realistic as any TV show can be. This is my first TV series, and one of the reasons I wanted to do it was the emphasis on issues. I think we're a sexy show, but some of the issues we're discussing could've been talked about in ancient Athens."

Yet while "Law & Order" was being praised in many quarters for the issues it was tackling, some advertising agencies were pulling their clients' commercials from the child-abuse trial and other episodes that were deemed controversial, such as one about the bombing of an abortion clinic.

"Our program is designed to give balance on issues, and yet I think we had more advertiser pullouts than any other show last season," said Wolf, a former writer-producer on "Hill Street Blues" and "Miami Vice." "And this is a cop show where the cops have never even fired their guns for 22 episodes! NBC stood by NTC us while we got established, but this practice [of advertiser pullouts] hurts serious dramas."

When "Law & Order" returns this season, Christopher Noth will have a new, older partner on the police beat. Paul Sorvino is replacing George Dzundza. The producers said Dzundza asked to be released from his contract because he was unhappy commuting from his home in Los Angeles and unhappy with the material on the show.

Sorvino, a well-known actor whose credits range from the failed TV series "We'll Get By" and "Bert D'Angelo" to the acclaimed film "Goodfellas," lives in New York and was drawn to the series by the strength of the scripts.

"I've been in some TV series where the quality didn't hold up after the pilot," Sorvino said. "The quality of this one seemed clear to me, and I'm in for the run of the show."

As "Law & Order" enters its second season, the biggest obstacle it faces -- other than Tuesday-night competition from ABC's new drama "Homefront" and CBS' slate of TV movies -- may be the accountants at Universal Studios, the Los Angeles company that produces the show. Several actors on the series said they had been told that Universal wants to cut the budget.

One point Wolf is not budging on is shooting the show in New York. Although he declined to discuss the overall budget, Wolf said that it costs "in excess of $100,000 per episode" more to film "Law & Order" on location in New York.

"The city is an integral part of our story-telling, and whether it's a bodega in Spanish Harlem or Christie's auction house on Park Avenue, filming here makes the stories themselves seem more real," he said.

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