04.10.11

The Downfall of Law & Order

Law & Order: LA is undergoing a massive retooling, Criminal Intent is about to end, and SVU’s leads’ contracts are set to expire. Jace Lacob reports on the once-mighty franchise.

There was a time when the mighty Law & Order reigned supreme on NBC. For 20 seasons, the crime procedural went through numerous iterations amid cast changes and behind-the-scenes shifts. The Dick Wolf-created drama single-handedly ushered in the modern crime series, later embodied by such shows as CSI. Its depersonalizing of plot—putting the emphasis on detectives’ and lawyers’ mystery-solving rather than character-based drama—transformed the genre entirely, and its stronghold on syndication has created a television landscape where the sun never sets on the franchise. (A Law & Order show is always playing somewhere in the world.)

When it was unceremoniously axed last spring by NBC, the network sought to tap into the still substantial fanbase for the franchise by ordering Law & Order: Los Angeles to replace it. This decision hasn’t panned out the way NBC envisioned—at all—and we have now come to a crucial and tenuous time for the venerable Law & Order brand.

Spinoff Law & Order: Criminal Intent, for instance, is set to air its tenth and final season beginning May 1 on USA (it started its life as an NBC show). Meanwhile, over at Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, still NBC’s biggest hit, the contracts of leads Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay—who both currently make $395,000 per episode—are set to expire at the end of the season. (Multiple sources indicate it’s a safe bet that both Meloni and Hargitay will be back in the fall for the show’s 13th season. “Anything can happen,” said one well-placed source, “but it seems likely that they will both be back, considering how well the show is doing, its power, and how well they’re paid.” Longtime SVU executive producer and overseer, Neal Baer, however, who made SVU a success after its shaky first season, is definitely leaving the show for a three-year deal at CBS Television Studios.)

And then there is the mess that is Law & Order: Los Angeles, which relaunches tonight after a muddled fall run. Having ordered it to series last May without a script or a cast, the network perhaps had the mindset that Law & Order fans would watch anything L&O-related. But Law & Order: LA flagged right out of the gate and the eight episodes that aired didn’t click with anyone. Amid concern and a changing regime at NBC, the show underwent creative retooling during a 19-week hiatus that saw it absent from the schedule.

All eyes will be watching the Law & Order: LA ratings for the first two new episodes, which may decide the show’s ultimate fate.

Tonight‘s return of Law & Order: LA is an effort to reboot the series, but Wolf, still the patriarch atop his creation, maintains the changes are “organic.” Gone are castmembers Regina Hall and Megan Boone, who played deputy district attorneys. And—SPOILER ALERT— Skeet Ulrich’s Det. Rex Winters will be killed off, as the victim of a drive-by shooting at his home. More changes are afoot, too. Alana de la Garza will reprise her role as attorney Connie Rubirosa from the original L&O, and Alfred Molina’s prosecutor character will leave behind the district attorney’s office and return to his heretofore unmentioned past as a police detective, partnering with Corey Stoll’s T.J. Jaruszalski.

It’s a lot of change that is designed to bring Molina front and center. While the actor had been trading off episodes with Oscar nominee Terrence Howard, the rebooted version will see both of them appear in every episode. And NBC has made a big deal about the death of Ulrich’s Winters, aggressively running promos that play up the cop’s death at the feet of his wife ( Teri Polo) and daughter. (It’s the first time a cop has been killed in the line of duty within the Law & Order universe since Season 1’s Max Greevey ( George Dzundza) was murdered by a criminal 20 years ago, though it’s hardly the last time a character has met a grisly end: Annie Parisse and Jill Hennessey’s Claire Kincaid, to name but two.)

Talking to reporters last week, Wolf was quick to not pin the show’s failure on Ulrich. “It is the unfortunate nature of the business that when something is not working it’s my fault [and] not the actor’s fault,” he said. “The show was not performing at the level that anybody was really happy with… And it’s not something that, in the abstract, Skeet deserved.”

Wolf also defended bringing Molina’s character back to the street. “I had the feeling that we were all fighting with one hand tied behind our back a lot of the episodes,” he said. “It is not a unique, made up out of whole cloth sequencing. There are a surprising number of prosecutors who actually—especially in major cities—did start out as cops.”

But is positioning Molina’s Morales front and center really the solution to what ails Law & Order: Los Angeles? And who decided that Ulrich’s character was somehow the show’s big problem? ( Critic Alan Sepinwall tweeted, “These commercials for the revamped LOLA seem to assume the public has an irrational hatred of Skeet Ulrich and desire to see him suffer.”)

The producers—who include Wolf, showrunner Rene Balcer, and developer Blake Masters (whose name appears in none of the new press materials)—made some crucial errors at the start of the season, most prominently about the role that the city plays within the franchise. Rather than make Los Angeles a character in its own right, the structure and tone of the Mother Ship were simply shifted to the West Coast.

It was a miscalculation that underlined the breakneck speed with which Law & Order: LA was rushed onto the air, and the changes now could be too little, too late.

Still, Wolf is true to his namesake and always ready for a fight. Another source close to the production, speaking to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity, said: “Every time you think it’s falling apart, it doesn’t… I don’t know that it was a mistake to cancel Law & Order [but] it wasn’t handled with any respect or grace. Just trading it for Law & Order: LA… it’s another of those NBC decisions that’s hard to rationalize.”

There have been less than successful iterations of the L&O formula over the years. Trial By Jury, Conviction, and loosely-related journalist drama Deadline all crashed and burned, and Wolf himself seems to have a narrow comfort zone that he relies on each time he spins off a new version of the blueprint.

All eyes will be watching the Law & Order: LA ratings for the first two new episodes, which may decide the show’s ultimate fate. But being so self-contained (which has assisted the franchise’s performance in terms of worldwide syndication and perpetual repeats) may in fact save the show. (“An episode of Law & Order can be watched 20 years from now in Uzbekistan and you don’t have to know anything, just turn it on,” said the second source.) Additionally, Law & Order: LA also faces less pressure to perform on a Monday night in April than in the highly competitive September start of the season.

“If anyone can get another year out of a show in this position, it would be Dick,” said the second source. “ SVU is still very important for NBC. They don’t have a lot of tentpoles over there and that’s a reliable drama for them and that can also keep LOLA on… It can give him some leverage.”

While it’s possible that the Law & Order universe may only consist of SVU next season, Law & Order: LA could return if Wolf is able to strong-arm NBC, though he and the show face new competition from Stephen Gaghan’s L.A.-set cops-and-lawyers pilot, Metro (formerly known as S.I.L.A.). However, Wolf is, if anything, a consummate businessman who has created more than 800 hours of television out of a singular, simple concept.

“[Wolf] is always at his best when his back is up against the wall,” said our second anonymous source. “There’s something bizarre about his ability to survive.”

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Jace Lacob is The Daily Beast's TV Columnist. As a freelance writer, he has written for the Los Angeles Times, TV Week, and others. Jace is the founder of television criticism and analysis website Televisionary and can be found on Twitter. He is a member of the Television Critics Association.