''Law & Order'': Season 2 -- Will the gritty drama, now with Paul Sorvino, be tougher this year?

On the final snowy morning of a long New York winter, two mounted police officers discover a man lying on a Central Park bench. Dazed and bleeding, he appears to be a robbery victim. Later, at the hospital, a doctor confirms that there has indeed been a theft: One of the man’s kidneys is missing. The detective assigned to the case barely flinches. ”Talk about getting your pocket picked,” he says.

Truth or tall tabloid tale? Hoax or newly minted urban legend? In a city whose police blotter regularly inspires stories on the order of ”Headless Body in Topless Bar,” the writers and producers of NBC’s gritty crime drama Law & Order know that the Case of the Kidnapped Kidney is far from impossible; that’s what made inventing it such fun.

Inspired by the fumes of headline ink and filmed in the unfakeable streets, stores, gutters, alleys, and parks of New York City, Law & Order, which begins its second season on NBC Sept. 17, is an anomaly among this fall’s prime-time series. It’s the only network drama to be shot in New York and the only one to embrace such a relentlessly unromanticized, concentrated storytelling style. But the show’s no-frills manner has captivated viewers. Last season, as other acclaimed hour-long ensemble series (thirtysomething, China Beach) saw their audiences shrink and their runs end, Law & Order became TV’s most popular new drama series; this summer, its reruns have occasionally reached Nielsen’s top 20. Its format for success is unique: Two policemen pursue criminals for the first half hour, and a pair of lawyers try them for the second. And although the show’s malfeasants often bear more than a coincidental resemblance to urban tabloid stars like Bernhard Goetz or the Mayflower Madam, Law & Order‘s plots coil and spring in very surprising directions. ”We may rip off a headline,” says executive producer Dick Wolf,44. ”But we don’t take the story along with it.”

With its main Tuesday competitor, ABC’s thirtysomething, now gone, Law & Order stands poised for breakout success. But it isn’t coming easily. ”The series has never been undramatic,” admits Michael Moriarty, who stars as assistant district attorney Ben Stone. ”On the air or off.”

In one such drama, Law & Order this summer lost George Dzundza, who starred as Det. Sgt. Max Greevey. After putting in a year which by some accounts was less than cheerful on the set — maybe that’s why Greevey was always scowling — Dzundza asked to be released from his contract and returned to the West Coast. So in this season’s first episode, Det. Mike Logan (Christopher Noth) will get a new partner, Det. Sgt. Phil Cerreta, played by Paul Sorvino.

When Sorvino, 52, joined the company in July, Wolf deliberately eased the actor (GoodFellas, Dick Tracy) into his role by shooting two episodes ”designed to be less emotionally pyrotechnical for the cast.” Then he shot the episode that will air first, which introduces Cerreta and explains Greevey’s departure.

But explaining everything rarely interests the writers of Law & Order. The story lines rush forward with a single-minded examination of the case at hand, and viewers are responsible for keeping up. After Wolf shot the pilot in early 1988, CBS executives took a look at its breakneck plotting, wobbly, documentary-style camera work, and grainy 16 mm footage, and rejected it outright. When NBC picked it up two years later, Wolf made some visual refinements; the show now uses 35 mm film, but 40 percent of the camera work is still hand-held, setting it apart from the gliding, polished photography of most TV dramas.

Also unique are the scripts, which Wolf insists must never cut away from the policemen or the prosecutors. ”On other shows, you can always cut away to another story when you have an awkward moment,” he says. ”On this one you can’t, and you can’t cut to a car chase or action scene — we hope to get through five years without our guys ever firing their guns.”

Notably absent from the scripts are the subplots that other shows use to humanize their characters. Law & Order‘s cops and lawyers have no romances, no coffee breaks, no days off, no personal crises: When they’re on-screen, they’re on duty, necessitating tough adjustments for the cast. ”Oh, it drove me crazy,” says Moriarty (Holocaust, Pale Rider). ”It makes Stone into a workaholic. It’s taken 22 episodes to reveal that I have a daughter and an ex-wife, and I had to fight for it. But,” he adds, smiling, ”they have already trained me not to want too much of a personal life.”

Noth, who sometimes has to compress Detective Logan’s personality into a raised eyebrow, hasn’t found it any easier. ”I had problems at the beginning,” the 34-year-old actor says. ”Obviously, you’re not going to go to Logan’s flat and find out he’s doing a thesis on Sartre. But I’ll add little touches.”

When he isn’t pounding a beat that can stretch from Wall Street to Harlem in a single 16-hour shooting day, Sorvino will be doing duty at the show’s precinct station, a cavernous set just off a Hudson River pier that was once home to The Equalizer and Kojak. The realism of Law & Order‘s squad room sets encompasses plaster blistering on old steampipes, filthy institutional green paint that covers the walls, and Elks Club commendations hanging in offices.

The quest for authenticity extends to the actors. When Moriarty, whose hushed, thoughtful courtroom style won him an Emmy nomination this year, talks about his trial scenes, the 50-year-old actor sounds as much like a DA expounding on tactics as a performer talking technique. ”I think a lawyer’s best if he thinks through a case clearly and eloquently with a jury rather than manipulates them with eye-popping and finger-pointing,” says Moriarty. ”What he does is simultaneously theater — because court is theater — and truth.”

One result of Wolf’s approach to Law & Order‘s stories is the lack of women in its cast: no wives, no girlfriends, and, most troublingly, no colleagues. Although actresses have turned up as judges, lawyers, and defendants, the show remains one of a handful of series without a single regular female character. But NBC Entertainment chief Warren Littlefield is hoping to lure thirtysomething‘s now-disenfranchised female audience by adding actresses, a goal that has led to what Wolf calls ”spirited discussions” with the network.

”Whatever I say is going to sound awful,” says the producer. ”We’re not misogynists. It went right down to the wire whether Stone’s (colleague) was going to be female (the part ultimately went to Richard Brooks). But the stories we do are so loaded that to explore a male-female component every week would have gotten old.”

Nevertheless, when NBC renewed Law & Order last spring, Wolf agreed to hire Carolyn McCormick as a forensic psychologist and is looking for another actress to play a DA’s press deputy, for recurring appearances. ”We’re not in a position to (add) another regular,” he says. ”But there’ll be a female presence in more than half the shows.”

That’s as close to compromising as the producer is likely to get this season. In other areas, nothing will change — including the use of New York locations, which add at least $100,000 a week to the budget. ”You can’t use a backlot for New York,” says Wolf. ”It’s indigenous in the weather, the locations, and the guest actors” — including Broadway performers and real cops whose Brooklyn accents and attitudes would be hard to come by in an L.A. casting office.

Wolf doesn’t intend to alter the show’s news-driven subject matter either: A look at this season’s topics should give the fainthearted plenty to squirm about. One episode will explore a case of child endangerment when health care is withheld by parents because of religious beliefs. Another will cover a corporation’s responsibility for homicide. There’s a serial killer story (”Serial killers have been done to death, but not this way,” claims Wolf), an hour about a demented fan who kills a soap opera actress, and another about a teacher who seduces one of her students into committing murder.

Not everyone appreciates such attention to temper-triggering issues. Last spring, episodes about an Irish Republican Army prisoner and an abortion-clinic bombing caused some advertisers to withdraw. NBC’s censors have expressed occasional misgivings about the show’s content as well, and their squeamishness is unlikely to subside.

”I admit that this show is on some level a pain in the ass to NBC,” says Wolf. ”They’ve got advertisers who get upset, and financially, this is never going to be The A-Team for them.” In fact, NBC’s execs might want to stock up on ant-acid now. ” We’re going to be dealing with several recent Supreme Court decisions,” adds the producer, with faint glee.

Not all of the tabloid-torn plots will be as familiar as they sound. ”When (NBC) asked if there was a bible (network-speak for a guide to story lines), I said, the bible is the front page of the New York Post. But it’s the front page, not the story inside,” he contends. ”Real life doesn’t translate that well to the show — it tends to seem overwrought or dull. So by the second half hour, we turn the headline on its ear.”

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