How the crime drama--the true-blue show, the relentless reruns, the sensational new spin-off--has become TV's most arresting development

By EW Staff
Updated November 12, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST
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On Law & Order, the audience is served by two separate but equally important groups. The writers, directors, and producers who’ve made the show one of the savviest, most addictive crime dramas on television today — not to mention the longest-running — and the actors and actresses who miraculously manage to make New York City cops and lawyers look sorta sexy. This is their story….

If this magazine article really were an episode of Law & Order, right about now we’d be strolling down a darkly lit Manhattan avenue, minding our own business — returning home from the opera, perhaps—when suddenly we’d stumble upon a dead body in a doorway. Or slumped in a parked car. Or poking out of a manhole. Whatever. The point is, we’d be inside what the show’s writers call ”the teaser”: those crucial two minutes before the opening credits that begin every episode’s famously plot-twisty, unfailingly topical hour-long journey through the criminal justice system.

In our particular teaser, however, we won’t bumble onto a crime scene. Instead, we’ll encounter a different sort of unsolved mystery: the case of the 10-year-old legal drama that was originally turned down by two networks (and almost canceled by a third), which has undergone more cast changes than Cats, and yet is currently more popular than ever. A show that has not only survived an entire decade — in itself an accomplishment only a handful of dramas can claim — but has also grown into a TV phenomenon, an entertainment empire that’s now spreading across the tube like a pre-Giuliani-era crime wave.

Wherever you are, whatever time it is, there’s probably a Law & Order episode on TV right now—or soon will be. Aside from the original Wednesday-night airings on NBC, you can find reruns on cable’s A&E channel four times a day. There’s also NBC’s new Monday-night spin-off, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit — a grittier, grimier drama loosely based on the NYPD’s real-life sex crimes division — which is also in repeats on the USA Network on Sunday nights. Next year, TNT stakes out a piece of the action, airing Law & Order reruns from the last three seasons (A&E will continue repeating episodes from the first seven). And next fall NBC has slated yet another Law & Order series, Deadline NYC, about an investigative journalist who may end up covering some of the same cases being litigated by the characters on the other shows.

All in all, it amounts to the most ambitious franchising of a TV series in network history, a trans-channel web of interconnected shows in which plot and character crossovers will be as common as commercials. ”That’s the master plan,” says Dick Wolf, the 52-year-old veteran producer who created and oversees all the Law & Order shows. ”If we pull it off, it’ll be like Dickens’ London, where the characters freely transit between the various shows and it’s all part of one big TV universe.”

In other words: today Wednesday nights, tomorrow the world. How did it happen? When did Law & Order start annexing the airwaves? And can Wolf really pull off his audacious master plan? We’ll start the investigation in a second. But first, since this teaser is just about over, there’s one other thing we have to do. After all, if this article really were a Law & Order episode, the next thing you’d hear would sound something like… Cha-chung!

Law & Order

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