One of Law & Order's longest-running ADAs finds herself returning to the TV franchise at a precarious time.
"I was a little bit nervous about joining," says Alana De La Garza, who played Connie Rubirosa for four years. "Especially when there's a change in things because they've all been together and you're kind of the newbie."
She's speaking of course about Law & Order: LA, the fifth edition in Dick Wolf's popular series, which is going through a creative overhaul mid-way through its first season. In January, after just eight episodes had aired, producers decided to nix three series regulars, including Skeet Ulrich, the first actor to be cast. The upheaval follows a rapid ratings slide — it lost 36 percent of its September premiere audience by November — and now, after four months off the air, NBC will relaunch the series on a new night and with significant changes beginning April 11.
But will viewers be interested? The show was first ordered in May on the same day NBC suddenly canceled the flagship series, which was just one year shy of becoming television's longest-running drama. ("We were all kind of thinking, 'See you next year,'" De La Garza remembers, "wait, there's no more show?")
"The fans were understandably upset when the mothership was canceled," LOLA executive producer and longtime Law & Order vet Rene Balcer says. As for why this latest Law & Order iteration has struggled to strike a chord with fans, Balcer is unsure. "Some of them kind of took it out on LOLA, which was a little mystifying. I don't think LOLA is trying to replace the original in the hearts and minds of fans."
The stakes are now higher than ever for the spin-off to perform. The franchise's fourth edition, Trial By Jury, was pulled off the air after 12 episodes with an average of 12.2 million viewers (well above LOLA's average). Criminal Intent was sent to USA in 2007 after dropping from a series-high season average of 14.3 million viewers to 8.38 million viewers in Season 6.
So producers went back to the drawing board: Although LOLA employed the same basic format as the original Law & Order, it lacked the trademark locale cards and music. The show will also now feature both Terrence Howard and Alfred Molina as senior D.D.A. and senior detective, respectively, in every episode. (The two actors previously switched off as prosecutor week-to-week.)
Balcer said he's grateful for the chance to rethink certain elements of LOLA because, he says, speaking frankly, the show was sort of a rush job. While most pilots take a year to come together, Balcer says producers were given six weeks to get the show running after the spin-off was ordered sans a pilot or a cast. "There were a lot of decisions made in a hurry to get on the air quickly. It's taken us six months to focus on how different do we want it to be from the mothership and what areas do we want it to be a little familiar to the viewers," Balcer says. "We knew we were going off the air for a few weeks anyways, so why don't we take an opportunity to process normally what would happen in the pilot process?"
He felt especially strong about anchoring each episode with Howard and Molina together. "It was a little frustrating to have them on, playing opposite each other. I think it kind of confused the identity of the show to have them on alternate weeks," Balcer says. "Once it was suggested that we move Fred Molina into the front half of the show, all bets were off."
Another objective for what Balcer calls 'LOLA 2.0' was to give it a "completely new look" from its premiere — it's now got a look longtime Law & Order fans will remember fondly. "There was a desire to have LOLA look completely different from the mothership. Then, over the course of the season, that changed," Balcer says. This not only meant re-introducing the locale cards and more of the music so closely associated with the original series, but also calling in a familiar face to partner with Howard.
Enter De La Garza. After initial difficulties casting the role of Howard's new assistant, Balcer remembered a strong guest star from the original Law & Order and re-watched her scenes — only to find himself drawn to De La Garza. "I thought, 'Why don't we just cast Alana? I can work out a story to explain what she's doing in LA,'" he says. "I called up Dick [Wolf] and I said, 'Why not Alana?' And he said, 'Oh my God. How could I be so stupid? Why didn't I think of that?'"
Following Law & Order's cancelation in May, the actress had moved back to California and given birth to her first son, Kiernan, in September. "I was actually negotiating a pilot. Literally, the next day I was supposed to go in for this thing. A friend of the show said, "Don't do anything rash. We're trying to resurrect Connie,'" De La Garza remembers. "It happened kind of quickly. One day it's 'Hey, don't do anything rash' and the next day I got an offer."
LOLA's creative path has been unconventional from the start, but Balcer only sees the upside. When the show returns on Mondays, it will face considerably less competition from other new series. LOLA also now finds itself under a new regime at NBC: Chairman of Entertainment Bob Greenblatt is said to have taken an active role in the relaunch since he came onboard in January. "I think we have a very enlightened and a very imaginative guy in charge who is very supportive of the show," Balcer says. "We may have been off the air, but we haven't been off the radar with all the casting news."
Four episodes and 3,000 miles later, De La Garza says her initial hesitations are completely gone. During an outdoor walk-and-talk scene with Howard on a sunny March day, the two playfully race back to their mark after a take and Howard stops by to visit with one of the most important men in her life, six-month-old Kiernan. "I met him and the first thing I said to him was 'Hi, I'm your Mexican muscle.' He burst out laughing and we just kind of hit it off," De La Garza says. "He sings to my baby. Not many people get Terrence Howard singing a tune."
With a veteran back on the beat, the question is whether LOLA will be able to resonate with flagship series fans and also distinguish itself as a stand-alone series? "I think that they will genuinely like the formula. The formula is back a little bit more to where the original was," De La Garza says. "I feel like, you just jump in and do the best that you can. Hopefully, they will love it. I think they will. It's the original formula that works."
Law & Order: LA returns on Monday, April 11 at 9/8c on NBC.