'Law & Order' bucks trend against quality


August 27, 1991|By Michael Hill

The quick take on the last TV season, once "Cop Rock" and company bit the dust, was that new and innovative were out, the tried and true were in. There were no new hit shows. Ratings were dominated by the old and venerable.

While the spring appearance of "Northern Exposure" on CBS brought a welcome breeze, during the entire season, every Tuesday night on NBC, one show swam relatively unnoticed against the tide of mediocrity.

That would be "Law & Order," which also bucked the trend against quality hour dramas surviving the flood of half-hour comedies. This show, a fast-paced, no-nonsense "Dragnet"-like drama that has the police tracking down a criminal in its first half hour and the prosecutors putting him on trial in the second, was also ignored by the Emmy voters. Michael Moriarty, who stars as district attorney Ben Stone, was nominated for best actor in a drama but lost out to James Earl Jones of "Gabriel's Fire."

But maybe now that it is out from under the shadow cast by "thirtysomething," its canceled competition on ABC, "Law & Order" will get the respect it deserves.

"We got some incredible things written about us, but it was still as if the show didn't exist in some people's minds," its creator and executive producer, Dick Wolf, said in a recent interview in Los Angeles.

"I felt we did a tremendous job. The public's reaction was more than I could have hoped for. The press reaction was more than TC could have hoped for. Yet at times we felt like the Invisible Man. I can't explain it."

"Law & Order" began winning its time slot for NBC and got a renewal for 22 shows in its second season in an atmosphere that's tough, very tough, on hour dramas. Often, like "Northern Exposure" or "Quantum Leap," such shows hang around for several seasons with partial orders before they find their audience.

"I think this is the first first-year drama in about three seasons that's gotten a full 22-episode re-order," Wolf said.

The reason, as with everything in television these days, is economic. "It's a very quick trigger these days because there is very little money around and the networks can't afford to back losers," Wold said.

"Law & Order" has one solid fan in new cast member Paul Sorvino, whose character of Phil Cerreta will repace George Dzundza's Sgt. Max Greevy in the show's first half. An unhappy Dzundza asked out and was released from his contract.

"I think it's the finest drama show on television," Sorvino said of deciding to take this role. "The quality is extraordinarily high. I think it's just a wonderful show."

Sorvino admits that with his movie career percolating along after appearances in "Goodfellas" and "Dick Tracy," he had no intention of doing a series.

"But the material was too strong to ignore. And the appeal of working in New York, which is my home, was a strong, strong point. I had just done some good things in movies and I had traveled and worked here and there, and I just felt it was a good time to be home and to be in such a wonderful group of players with such fine writing."

But the Big Apple, a big plus in the look and feel of "Law & Order," does come with big headaches for Wolf.

"Money, money, money. It's very expensive," he said. "That's the only problem with shooting in New York, it's more expensive in almost every respect you can think of that involves filmmaking. From location expenses to the salary of the crew, on every level it's more expensive, and it's tragic. That's why you are seeing no shows, except for 'Cosby' and 'Law & Order,' being shot in New York."

But Wolf said the toughest thing about the show, and the reason for its success, is its writing. "Every writer who has been on the show has said at one time or another that it is the toughest thing he has ever written," Wolf said. "That's because if you look at it in the abstract, you have to write not only a hell of a good cop show, but you've got to write a hell of a legal show.

"And you've got to do it with no transition scenes, no home life, no sex appeal. It's all on the story. The show is what it is. There are no subplots. It's a story-driven hour, a linear story-telling process."

Something you won't see on "Law & Order" are stories that take 45 minutes for the cops to catch the criminal and only 15 minutes for the the courtroom action. There are creative reasons for that, but also -- surprise, surprise -- economic ones.

A big reason hour dramas are having a hard time is that studios don't want to make them because they aren't selling on the syndication market. But "Law & Order" could be scheduled as a half-hour series.

"That's always something that has been way back in our minds," Wolf said of the possibility of five hour episodes becoming 10 half-hour reruns that would run daily over two weeks. "There is a definite advantage if you can get a show that can be syndicated in two forms."

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