It’s probably spawned more spin-offs than any other show in TV history, but until now, the ‘Law & Order’ franchise has stayed mainly in New York.
But with the cancellation last spring of the original ‘L&O’ – what the show’s cast and crew referred to lovingly as “the mothership” – ‘Law & Order’ is now taking up residence in Los Angeles with ‘Law & Order: LA’ (premiering Wednesday night at 10/9c on NBC). It’s the first time this venerable franchise about cops, criminals and the justice system – masterminded by executive producer Dick Wolf – has set up shop outside of The Big Apple.
The move could either spell the beginning of the end for this revered, long-running TV institution, or breathe new life into it. Viewers may take a look at the new ‘L&O: LA’ and decide they’ve had enough of a procedural formula that’s been recycled for five spin-off series (counting the new one, plus a British version, ‘L&O: UK,’ that you’ll be able to watch on BBC America starting Oct. 3.).
Or, a change in location to a new city might be just what the franchise needed. If the L.A. version works, then it shouldn’t be long before NBC starts thinking about similar spin-offs set in other major cities, from Chicago to Miami. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. As ‘L&O: LA’ gets ready for its launch, let’s take a look at this prolific franchise.
All told, the original ‘L&O’ and its spin-offs add up to more than 900 hours of television (not counting two other Dick Wolf series: ‘Crime & Punishment,’ a “drama-mentary” series that was more like a reality series than a true ‘L&O’ spin-off; and ‘Conviction,’ a short-lived drama about young assistant district attorneys in Manhattan that was not billed as an ‘L&O’ spin-off, though it might have seemed like one).
No wonder it seems as if you can’t change the channel without stumbling on to some version of ‘Law & Order.’ Indeed, the repeats have aired for years on broadcast stations and on cable (principally TNT and USA) and have made hundreds of millions of dollars for NBC Universal and the producer, Dick Wolf. That success is based mainly on three shows – the original ‘L&O,’ ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’ and ‘Law & Order: Criminal Intent.’
Another spinoff, ‘Law & Order: Trial By Jury,’ was short-lived, producing just 13 episodes in 2004 (only 12 of which aired, in spring and summer 2005). That show’s cast included Bebe Neuwirth and Amy Carlson (‘Third Watch’), along with Fred Thompson in the district attorney’s role he was also playing simultaneously on ‘L&O’. Jerry Orbach was also seen on ‘Trial By Jury,’ playing investigator Lennie Briscoe (his old ‘L&O’ role), but he had become so ill that he could only film two episodes (Orbach died in December 2004).
But it’s the original ‘L&O’ that started it all. The show pioneered the kind of spinning off of new series that you’re seeing today with the lucrative ‘CSI’ franchise on CBS – similar shows, launched from a “mothership,” adopting the same formula but located in other cities with different casts. The original ‘L&O’ ran for 20 seasons and 456 episodes, surviving through numerous cast changes. Among the best remembered: Orbach, George Dzundza, Chris Noth, Steven Hill, Michael Moriarty, Paul Sorvino, Richard Brooks, Jill Hennessey, Sam Waterston, Benjamin Bratt, Angie Harmon and many, many others. S. Epatha Merkerson was the show’s longest-running cast member, joining the show as Lt. Anita Van Buren in 1993 and remaining until the end.
NBC launched ‘L&O: SVU’ in 1999 and the show’s original stars, Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay are still with the series, which started its 12th season earlier this month. Through last season, the show had produced 247 episodes. Airing Wednesday nights at 9/8c, the show is serving as a lead-in to the new ‘L&O: LA’. The intense ‘SVU’ focuses on a unit of NYPD detectives who investigate mainly sexual crimes and the “special victims” of those crimes, who often include children.
Now at 187 episodes (as of last season), ‘Law & Order: Criminal Intent’ was launched two seasons after ‘SVU,’ with Vincent D’Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe in the lead roles, as investigators of so-called “high-profile” crimes. Chris Noth, now seen on ‘The Good Wife’ on CBS, joined the series in season five, in his old ‘L&O’ role of Det. Mike Logan. Jeff Goldblum replaced Noth when he left in 2008. By then, NBC had already moved the series to USA Network, where it is still airing.
So, how about it, ‘Law & Order’ fans? Are you ready to give this franchise another go, this time in ‘L.A.’? Do you think a change in venue will help revive the franchise? For that matter, do you think the ‘L&O’ formula still works? Or has it become repetitive, maybe a little stale, with each passing season and new spinoff?