September 07, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Law & Order: Criminal Intent
NBC, 9-10 p.m., Sunday
Debuts September 30

Looking every bit the old-school TV producer in his navy suit, bright yellow shirt, and gold cuff links, Dick Wolf strides onto the set of his latest NBC spin-off, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and watches as costars Vincent D’Onofrio (Full Metal Jacket, Men in Black) and Kathryn Erbe (HBO’s prison drama Oz) shoot an arrest scene in an out-of-business Greenwich Village bookstore. Suddenly, sirens blare from the street — a fire has broken out several stories above them. A hook-and-ladder truck from FDNY Company 147 (”Da Pride of Flatbush”) arrives, and firefighters rush inside the building. All the while, the cameras keep rolling. ”It’s just another normal day on the set for Wolf Films,” the company’s founder deadpans.

With a résumé reaching back to Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice, Wolf is an old pro at putting out fires on sets. (Luckily, no one was injured in today’s real-life incident.) But the question is, Can Criminal Intent blaze the same successful trail as predecessors Law & Order and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit?

Wolf’s betting the show’s premise will provide the necessary spark: ”You get to see inside the criminal’s head,” he says. ”It’s the first time a Law & Order series has broken the locked point of view.” In fact, Criminal Intent devotes almost as much screen time to the perp perspective — the planning, execution, and aftermath of the crime — as it does to the investigation by the Major Cases Squad, an elite unit of detectives assigned to the highest-profile crimes.

But will viewers really want to spend that much time inside the mind of the bad guy? ”American audiences have always been fascinated by criminals…from pulp novels about Western outlaws to gangster films of the ’30s and ’40s to The Sopranos,” says executive producer Rene Balcer, a member of the Wolf pack since Law & Order’s first season 11 years ago. ”In a way, they’re a twisted mirror of our own wants, needs, and desires — there’s a vicarious thrill in watching somebody do something you would never dare do.”

Actually, you’d think Wolf would never dare venture into this territory again after the quick demise of his 1993 non-L&O drama Crime & Punishment, in which cops and hoods shared their motives with an invisible voice known as the Interrogator. But he says Criminal Intent is different: ”The thing that hurt Crime & Punishment was breaking the fourth wall. It doesn’t seem to make audiences happy.”

Neither, you’d think, would knowing whodunit before a show’s opening credits, but Criminal Intent’s creative team isn’t concerned about veering from that standard detective-show formula. ”I have a lot of experience delivering thrills and twists and surprises, and I’m not going to disappoint with this series,” says Balcer. ”The audience may think they’re one step ahead of the police, but I’m going to be one step ahead of the audience.” Besides, adds new NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker, ”just because you know what’s going on, you don’t know how the cops are going to figure it out.”

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