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2 Law & Order spin-offs spoiled a winning TV formula

The cast of Law & Order: Los Angeles
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NBC is in the midst of an age that could be accurately described as a Dick Wolf renaissance. Wolf, the godfather of the contemporary police procedural, has surged back into the pole position at NBC. His Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. are doing such solid numbers, a third Chicago-set medical show is currently in development. Wolf’s recent hits have even sparked talks of reviving the dormant flagship Law & Order series after NBC cancelled it in 2010, when it was on the cusp of eclipsing Gunsmoke as the longest-running primetime drama with a 21st season. Wolf’s current Chicago-based franchise is fascinating chiefly because a series born of a similar notion—to inject Wolf’s storytelling sensibility in a non-Manhattan setting—led to the partial collapse of one of the most successful television franchises in history.

Law & Order: Los Angeles wasn’t exclusively to blame for decimating the franchise, but it became emblematic of the process by which Wolf’s once-mighty cop-and-robbers empire crumbled. NBC picked up the left-coast incarnation of Wolf’s iconic procedural with a straight-to-series order in early 2010. By that point, another sputtering spin-off, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, had already been shipped off to USA, where it managed to churn out original episodes until its cancellation in 2011 after 10 seasons. Meanwhile, the mothership series was sagging with Jeremy Sisto and Anthony Anderson as one of the least compelling detective teams in the show’s history. Only Law & Order: Special Victims Unit was still thriving, but it was veering toward a cliff as a reportedly botched salary negotiation led to the departure of Christopher Meloni, one half of the show’s fan-favorite duo. Los Angeles was supposed to be the gust of fresh air the decrepit L&O franchise needed; instead it wound up severely bruising the brand at a crucial point in its history.

Los Angeles was developed by Blake Masters, creator of Showtime’s mob drama Brotherhood, then passed off to Rene Balcer, the veteran L&O scribe who developed Criminal Intent, to take over as head writer and showrunner. Skeet Ulrich and Corey Stoll were cast as the spin-off’s cop characters, Detectives Rex Winters and Tomas Jaruszalski, while Alfred Molina and Regina Hall won the roles of Los Angeles’ deputy district attorneys, Ricardo Morales and Evelyn Price. At least from a staffing standpoint, there was nothing to suggest Los Angeles would dramatically veer from the path set forth by its forebear. In a DVD featurette on the show’s creation, Wolf promised his familiar formula with a sunnier backdrop: “It’s what worked pretty well for 20 years in a new setting… ripped from the headlines, but with a more west coast sensibility.”

The comments proved misleading. Plenty of the show’s episodes were, in fact, inspired by Los Angeles-area news stories, such as the episode based on the murder of influential publicist Ronni Chasen. But that was the only similarity to be found in Los Angeles, which was drastically different from the other series in the franchise, and by design. As the first show in the L&O universe set outside New York City, Masters and Wolf strove to differentiate Los Angeles by giving it the same strong sense of place the original series had, thereby making the shows as distinct as their respective cities. It was a shrewd approach to Los Angeles, given that Criminal Intent was done in by its failure to distinguish itself, despite taking the emphasis off the whodunit element that became so important to the show. But NBC’s inscrutable decision to ax L&O doomed Los Angeles because the spin-off was too disparate to attract forlorn fans of the original series. Ending L&O just before Los Angeles began suggested a passing of the torch that felt misguided and premature. Not since The Apprentice: Martha Stewart had NBC so badly miscalculated a spin-off of a beloved franchise.

LOLA, as it came to be known, immediately signals its departure, doing away with the standard “The criminal justice system…” introduction spoken by Steven Zirnkilton, and even the iconic “dun dun” sound. Instead, LOLA begins with a generic title reveal in the franchise’s signature font, then tosses the viewer into the deep end of Hollywood culture. The landscape is introduced through P.O.V. shots of a sports car whipping through the Hollywood streets, driven by a character later revealed to be Chelsea (Danielle Panabaker), a Lindsay Lohan analogue who saunters into a glitzy nightclub with her Dina Lohan-inspired mother (Shawnee Smith) tagging along.

The pair is ensnared in Winters and Jaruszalski’s investigation into the savage beating of a famous actor’s girlfriend, but Chelsea refuses to testify against her mother. DDA Morales caves in, fearing Chelsea would sink the prosecution with a convincing performance on the stand. Law & Order shows relish strategy and delight in showing their protagonists figuring out how to circumvent the barriers put in front of them. The division between Morales and Price, who insists on forcing Chelsea’s testimony, is a representative example of how LOLA took the red tape and blind alleys endemic to any of Wolf’s shows and localized them to Tinseltown.

The pilot is called “Hollywood,” establishing the neighborhood-based naming convention that remained through LOLA’s 22-episode season. The episode titles are about the only consistent aspect of LOLA, which was retooled dramatically based on its underwhelming quality and inauspicious ratings. The show wasn’t working. For one thing, LOLA never felt like a living version of Los Angeles. The show didn’t convey the spirit of the city, it merely dropped in lots of references to local landmarks, almost like the police-procedural version of Saturday Night Live’s “The Californians” sketch. Also, Winters and Jaruszalski, also known as “TJ,” came off too often as the underdogs in a world where fame, power, and connections—not truth and justice—rule the day. Making matters worse, Ulrich, who never managed to imbue Winters with an identity, couldn’t find a rhythm with Stoll. Things were no more stable on the legal side for the same reason: A striking lack of chemistry between Molina and Hall made their scenes play more like a disastrous blind date than a successful professional partnership.


As necessary as the retooling was, LOLA’s makeover was so extreme, it was met with the same suspicion and derision directed at Hollywood actresses that have surgeons alter their features. Ulrich’s character is murdered by a drug cartel, while Morales becomes so disillusioned with the politics of the justice system, he returns to the detective beat, becoming TJ’s partner. The open DDA seat goes to Jonah Dekker (Terrence Howard), who was first briefly paired with a partner played by The Blacklist’s Megan Boone, after Hall’s character resigned. Boone’s character also quickly resigns, keeping with the L&O tradition of hastily shuffled female lawyer characters. Alana De La Garza, an alumna of the mothership series, reprises her role as Connie Rubirosa, who serves as Dekker’s partner to the end of the show’s production. Wolf and NBC were so desperate to recapture the L&O flavor, Zirnkilton’s voiceover was shoehorned into the intro, and the title reveal was supplemented with a formal credit sequence.

LOLA became so fundamentally different, remaining episodes from the early part of the season had to be shelved and burned off later, injecting more confusion into an already baffling creative evolution. Nearly two-thirds of LOLA’s episodes aired out of sequence, which isn’t normally a challenge for a case-of-the-week procedural, but wreaked havoc on a show with significant cast churn. Some of the creative amendments proved helpful. Molina’s folksy, laid-back approach to Morales made the character more interesting as a detective than as a DDA, and he and Stoll achieved the old-veteran-and-young-hotshot dynamic the original series had when Jerry Orbach was its star. But Howard was a poor fit for Dekker, a character that forced him to rein in his expressiveness. He appears to be physically uncomfortable during many of his scenes, as if Dekker suffered injuries as a result of being suddenly catapulted into the show. The tinkering proved too little too late, and LOLA was euthanized after one season, leaving SVU as the last bastion of the L&O franchise.


LOLA would have become the first L&O series to be cancelled after a single season, but that dubious distinction had already been claimed by Law & Order: Trial By Jury, which produced its initial 13-episode order before NBC pulled the plug. Despite its early cancellation, Trial By Jury didn’t do as much harm to the brand as Los Angeles did, because it was so distinct from the mothership, there wasn’t as much to unfavorably compare. Trial By Jury debuted in March 2005, becoming NBC’s fourth L&O at a time when the franchise was performing so strongly between the original, SVU and Criminal Intent, the network thought it could support another. As it turned out, four L&O shows was a crowd. Trial By Jury debuted to ratings numbers that would be respectable for many debut shows, but were less impressive for an extension of the L&O brand. After being subdued by CBS’ Numbers, it was farmed out to Court TV, which didn’t air the final episode until January 2006.

Court TV was a snug fit for TBJ, which dispenses with the L&O format and focuses intently on the trial phase, expanding it beyond the third-act boundary placed on it in the show’s other incarnations. TBJ is a decent, if generic legal procedural, but like Los Angeles before it, its greatest strength—its position under the L&O umbrella—was also its most potent weakness. The brand name was enough to draw in curious viewers, but what they found upon tuning in was a show with L&O’s setting and themes, but not its rhythms. Police elements like the red-herring interrogations and suspect chase scenes were largely absent, replaced by courtroom maneuvering that did little to differentiate TBJ from other legal dramas on the air.


TBJ began as a case of Wolf wisely striking when opportunity presented itself. ABC’s legal thriller The Practice ended its eight-season run in 2004 and was succeeded by its spin-off Boston Legal, a show creator David E. Kelley set apart from its forebear by cranking the quirk to its highest setting. Viewers looking for a more reverent legal procedural were ripe for the picking, and with the L&O franchise at the height of its prominence, the timing was ideal. NBC moved forward with TBJ, and Wolf gave the showrunner position to Walon Green, a longtime collaborator who went on to oversee the final two season of Criminal Intent after TBJ fizzled. Bebe Neuwirth was cast in the lead role of Tracey Kibre, a tenacious, highly ranked ADA who prosecutes Manhattan’s most scandalous cases, a framework that gave TBJ the latitude to feature all manner of cases and crimes.

By L&O standards, ADA Kibre was shoved out into the cold and forced to fend for herself. Wolf frequently deploys crossover episodes to introduce characters from his spin-offs. The crossover introductions had to be done twice for LOLA due to its rocky retooling. Winters made his debut in a SVU crossover, then Dekker appeared on a subsequent SVU episode to lay the foundation for LOLA’s extensive remodel. Kibre eventually got a SVU crossover episode all her own, but as the 11th episode of the season, the stunt came too late to do TBJ any favors. (Fun fact: The two-part SVU/TBJ crossover is about the pursuit of a serial rapist played by none other than Molina, future Los Angeles prosecutor/detective.)


Wolf had a better plan for creating a sense of continuity between TBJ and the rest of the franchise: He moved Orbach to TBJ full-time, with his Lennie Briscoe character becoming an investigator with the DA’s office. Fred Thompson also became a TBJ regular playing District Attorney Arthur Branch after playing the character for two seasons on original L&O and making several appearances on SVU. Unfortunately, the most familiar face was the quickest to disappear from TBJ. Orbach died from prostate cancer early in the production, appearing in only the first two episodes. He was so ill he barely managed to complete the second one.

With Orbach gone, TBJ truly became its own beast, for better and for worse. L&O shows are moralistic, and while they don’t hesitate to unsettle the audience with a shocking acquittal or a victory with unintended consequences, the justness of the narrative world is never in question. TBJ is a far more cynical show, frequently playing with the idea that trials are more about tallying wins than serving justice. Kibre is an overdramatic, crafty prosecutor, and while she believes in the American justice system, she’s of the opinion that most jurors are rubes who can be convinced of anything if it’s delivered with gusto. One of Kibre’s most histrionic arguments comes in “Baby Boom,” the show’s fifth episode, in which a judge played by Aasif Mandvi presides over the trial of Katie (Elisabeth Moss), a nanny accused of shaking a baby to death.

This kind of thespian excess works in the favor of TBJ, which, because of its talk-heavy environment, made the show a better showcase for actors than playing the typical L&O perp who spends some of his screen time refusing to talk at all. The Johnnie Cochran showmanship and word-vomit courtroom confessions move to the foreground in TBJ, and that’s enough to make TBJ’s cancellation the more lamentable of the two one-and-done L&O spin-offs. Given the franchise’s ability to attract impressive talent in guest roles, TBJ could have eventually become the first stop for esteemed actors in search of a weird, dark change of pace. But the show was never going to be compatible with the L&O brand because it was too focused on the tail end of the process. Turning L&O into a straight legal drama eliminates one of the show’s most electrifying dynamics, the ever-shifting relationships between detectives and prosecutors, which can be simultaneously cooperative and contentious.


Wolf is often criticized for his paint-by-numbers approach to television storytelling, and it’s fair to question his aversion to risk considering a slight departure from the formula ensured the health of L&O’s only remaining show. Wolf worked to design a narrative template that emphasized story over character, and by following that template, Wolf steeled L&O against contractual power plays from its cast. SVU outlasted the other shows by investing in its characters as much as its episodic stories, and over time, Meloni and Mariska Hargitay became a bigger draw than the weekly cases their characters cracked. While Meloni’s abrupt exit justifies Wolf’s fear of a star-driven series, SVU’s continued success, even without Meloni, shows the L&O template has room for improvement. But SVU is the only exception to the rule, one borne out by the failures of TBJ and Los Angeles. Wolf’s format is a precise and volatile compound that will almost always explode when it’s tampered with or exposed to California sunlight.

Wonder, weirdo, or wannabe: A pair of wannabes

Next time: Alex McCown asks the question “Who killed Harper’s Island?”


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