|Does learning that Jill Hennessy's twin sister sat in for her during the first "Law & Order" crossover episode with "Homicide: Life on the Street" increase your pulse rate ever so slightly? |
If the answer is yes, you may just be a "Law & Order" addict.
And you are not alone.
You, like myself, are among millions beckoned weekly--and until recently, daily in reruns--to the longest running primetime drama currently airing on network television. A show so popular that it has inspired three other "L&O" series, Web sites (including an online fanzine called Apocrypha, named after an episode about people slavishly devoted to a cult), drinking games (see sidebar) and countless hours of trivial pursuit.
If my phone rings during an airing of "L&O," it's usually a friend querying me on a familiar-looking guest star--known as "repeat offenders." "What other episode (or episodes) has that actor appeared in?" I'm asked. Other times I'm the one placing the call. There's no time limit for answering, but usually none is needed.
Four years ago, creator Dick Wolf told me his hope was for the series to break "Gunsmoke's" record--it ran for 20 years. If its slavishly committed devotees have any say, that dream will come to pass. "Law & Order" enters its 13th season Wednesday as a solid ratings performer for NBC (No. 5) and with an episode that executive producer Michael Chernuchin promises comes with a "moneyback guarantee--it's great 'Law & Order.'"
Titled "American Jihad," the episode, in true "L&O" form, will touch on the hot-button issues of the day. On its face it looks like the John Walker Lindh-American Taliban case, but Chernuchin says it will have the series' trademark twist.
Chernuchin--who jokingly describes himself as a "recovering lawyer," worked the show for the first six years, left to pursue other projects for the next six, and now is back on the case--tried to put his finger on the appeal of the show.
"It's a combination of things. It's not serialized. It's current. It's relatable," Chernuchin says.
He may be on to it. In my unscientific survey of hardcore fans--the ones who for years would watch the 10 p.m. syndication airing on A&E and then stay up and watch it again at 2 a.m. for good measure--most reasoned similarly. "Law & Order," they say, is "real." There's an immediacy in the ripped-from-the-headlines stories that gives them an added social resonance.
"The way we look at it is that the top half is a murder mystery and the second half is a moral mystery," Chernuchin says. This moral mystery is what, at least anecdotally, seems to intrigue the show's avid female viewers. (And to think the worry in the early years was that the program skewed too male.)
It hardly needs to be summarized, but in case there's anyone who's just come out of a 13-year coma, a rough outline of "Law & Order" is as follows: The show begins with a crime, and its first half-hour follows the cops' pursuit and eventual arrest of a suspect. The second half-hour is devoted to the prosecutors, who take the case to trial.
The show, which can turn today's news stories into compelling drama in about six weeks, works at a breakneck pace, according to Chernuchin. "Every eight days you need a new script. It's like running a marathon without a water stop," he says. The show has nine writers, with "one or two people working on a script, then it comes to me."
Of course, sometimes the show's story lines hit too close to home for some of the day's newsmakers. Gary Condit's wife, Carolyn, demanded an apology for last season's "Missing" episode. In a letter to the show, her attorney complained that the episode implied "Mrs. Condit was somehow involved in Chandra Levy's disappearance, and that Mrs. Condit spoke to Miss Levy on the telephone."
There was no apology; the show counters that its stories are fictional. Just read the disclaimer that pops up at the end of episodes. Chernuchin says that tagline was added when they aired "Indifference," an installment that bore some similarities to the sensational New York City murder of 6-year-old Lisa Steinberg. Says Chernuchin, "Before that case we didn't run that disclaimer at the beginning but [Joel Steinberg] is a lawyer so we thought we better..."
In addition to Chernuchin, who is a law school buddy of former Cook County State's Attorney Jack O'Malley (a character named Jack O'Malley turned up in the episode "Night and Fog"), a battery of studio lawyers reviews each script. And apparently lawyers are some of the show's biggest fans. The late William Kunstler, who defended the Chicago Seven, appeared in an episode titled "White Rabbit," in which he represented a '60s fugitive. And, Chernuchin reveals, another guest appearance for a famous attorney is in the works.
The show has even been contacted for legal advice: "I did a show about faulty pacemakers ['The Corporate Veil'] once and we got a call from a law firm that said they were doing a case about the same thing," Chernuchin says. "They asked for a copy of the script--they wanted to see how we won it."
Here's hoping the show continues to win over fans, one case at a time.
Note: "Law & Order" now airs in syndication on the TNT cable network.
A spin through series in the L&O collection
'Spinoff" is an ugly word to "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" executive producer Neal Baer. He considers the other shows that bear the trademark "Law & Order" brand name to be separate and distinct entities.
These are their stories:
LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT
9 p.m. Fridays
MO: This series debuted in September 1999. Dann Florek, who played Capt. Cragen during the first three seasons of the original "L&O," runs a squad that investigates sex crimes. The show has been peppered with famous guest stars such as Martha Plimpton and Henry Winkler.
Major players: Cragen's team includes Benson (Mariska Hartigay, daughter of Jayne Mansfield); Stabler (Christopher Meloni, "Oz's" Death Row-bound Chris Keller); Munch (Richard Belzer, playing the same conspiracy theorizing character he made infamous on "Homicide: Life on the Street"), and Tutuola (Ice-T, the rapper-actor who starred in "L&O" creator Dick Wolf's short-lived 1997 series "Players").
Stephanie March plays Cabot, the ADA to whom the cops deliver their cases.
LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT
8 p.m. Sundays
MO: Last season's "L&O" addition starts before the crime and the major case detectives get inside the criminal's head in bringing the perp to justice. Vincent D'Onofrio carries most of the weight of the series as Det. Goren, a character who is part Sherlock Holmes, part profiler.
Major players: Eames (Steppenwolf member Kathryn Erbe, who shined as Prisoner No. 97B642 on "Oz") is Goren's partner; Deakins (Jamey Sheridan, who stalked former original "L&O" castmember Angie Harmon in the Lifetime movie "Video Voyeur" earlier this year) is Goren's boss; and D.A. Carver (Courtney B. Vance, who was riveting in the original "L&O" episode titled "Rage") is Goren's hand-off guy.
CRIME & PUNISHMENT
MO: It was reality TV-meets-"L&O" in this summer series that followed actual cases.
Major players: Real-life prosecutors and would-be criminals star in this intriguing show, which could be as wild as anything a screenwriter could dream up. NBC picked the show up for another season earlier this month.
Software lets mystery hit home
As the fall television season debuts, Legacy Interactive today announced the launch of their new CD-ROM game based on the hit series "Law & Order."
Featuring the voices of "Law & Order" stars Jerry Orbach, S. Epatha Merkerson and Elisabeth Rohm, "Law & Order: Dead on the Money" allows fans to partner with their favorite characters to solve an original Wall Street murder mystery case written by a "Law & Order" episodic writer and long-time fan. Based on Wolf Films' hit NBC series "Law & Order," this interactive, 3D mystery game allows fans to realistically solve an original Wall Street murder case.
"Law & Order: Dead on the Money," distributed by Vivendi Universal Games, will be available for a suggested retail price of $29.99 and is available for Windows 95/98/ME/XP. For more information about the game, log on to www.lawandordergame.com.
Catching up with former series regulars: Where are they now?
A busy man, Moriarty has racked up an impressive number of roles in a variety of projects, including 1996's "Courage Under Fire," the TV series "Psi Factor," 2000's "Hitler Meets Christ" (he was Hitler) and 2001's "Along Came a Spider." He just won a best supporting actor Emmy for his role in "James Dean."
The reliable actor has been playing pretty much the same role in countless productions, including 1992's "Basic Instinct," 1995's "Crimson Tide," 1997's "That Darn Cat," and this year's "City by the Sea." He also does voice-over work, and can be seen on TV this season on "Hack."
Without the "L&O" grind, Sorvino has had more time to pursue his opera singing (he's performed at New York's Met and has recorded three CDs) and sculpting. He was a regular on the show "That's Life," which CBS cancelled last season. You can hear his voice in this year's animated "Hey Arnold! The Movie."
These days, you recognize him more as "Sex and the City's" Mr. Big. His biggest movie thus far has been 2000's "Cast Away," but you can look for him as Pompey in the upcoming miniseries "Julius Caesar."
Embarked on a hit-and-miss movie career: 2000's "The Next Best Thing" opposite Madonna (miss); 2000's "Miss Congeniality" opposite Sandra Bullock (hit, but that's just our opinion); 2000's "Red Planet" (miss); 2000's "Traffic" (hit, small); and 2001's "Pinero" (hit, according to the seven people who saw it). More importantly, he dumped that mousy starlet he'd been dating, and married "Pinero" co-star Talisa Soto. They have a baby on the way.
His acting career since "L&O" has been spotty. Loved him in 1996's "The Crow: City of Angels," but lost track of him around 1999, when he appeared on TV's "G Vs. E."
Rebounded from sitcom flop "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer" (1998) with a regular gig on L&O spinoff "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." Also notably appeared in 2002's reunion special "L.A. Law: The Movie," reprising his role as Dave Meyer.
Her movie record has been unimpressive, with small roles in films such as "A Smile Like Yours" and "Autumn in New York." But she's been crackling on TV, landing the role of Jackie Kennedy in 2000's "Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Women of Camelot." She lets her hair down in her new series, as a tough-talking medical examiner, in "Crossing Jordan," launched in 2001.
Not the ambitious type, Lowell has almost completely disappeared from the entertainment scene, preferring instead to raise son Homer with husband Richard Gere. However, you can find her on a 2001 video release, "Boogeymen: The Killer Compilation," a collection of scenes from vintage horror flicks. Her fine work in 1990's "The Guardian" is showcased.
Her biggest production has been her Dallas wedding to the New York Giants' Jason Sehorn, who proposed to her on "The Tonight Show." In January, she starred in Lifetime's "Video Voyeur: The Susan Wilson Story."
A great voice of authority, Hill is part of online investment company TD Waterhouse's $80 million advertising campaign. He's in commercials and print ads.
CELEBRITY GUEST STARS
BIG NAME STARS IN THE LINEUP
Celebrities love to slum it as guest stars on "Law & Order." It's the "Murder, She Wrote" of the new millennium.
Here are some of the bigger names who have appeared on the series. You may notice quite a few crossovers from the cast of "The Sopranos."
Philip Seymour Hoffman (appeared twice, as two different characters)
Felicity Huffman (appeared twice, as two different characters)
Samuel L. Jackson
James Earl Jones
William H. Macy (appeared twice, as two different characters, and married to occasional guest star Felicity Huffman)
Camryn Manheim (appeared three times, as three different characters)
Michael McKean (appeared in an episode with his real-life wife, Annette O'Toole)
Regina Taylor (appeared twice, as two different characters)
Aida Turturro (appeared three times, as three different characters)
Courtney B. Vance (appeared twice, as two different characters)