Tonight's episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent (9 pm/ET, on NBC) got its inspiration from the recent bizarre love triangle involving NASA astronauts. For a preview of this stranger-than-fiction tale, we talked to executive producer Warren Leight, who also wrote the episode.
TV Guide: I guess doing a ripped-from-the-headlines story on the astronaut scandal was a no-brainer, right?
We were 18 episodes into the season and banging our heads against the walls, so it seemed like a gift. I saw the [New York] Post and the Daily News staring me in the face and thought it was divine intervention.
TV Guide: How much research did you do about Lisa Nowak and the real astronaut scandal before writing this episode?
It's funny, you use these things as a jumping-off point. What was interesting was to get into the culture of NASA and the stress that these people are under, and the years of preparation, and what it's like to be a woman astronaut. Most of the research we did was just about how intensely competitive an environment these people are in and how few of them get to go into space, and how everything else gets put on a back burner or ignored. A good episode starts with a nice tawdry story and then you try to find out what motivates these people. They're rocket scientists, so we started to think, "If you're a rocket scientist, I guess you could plot a good murder if [you] had to." Our initial impulse was base and tawdry but as we drove into the episode we found, as we try to do, real characters with real losses, so we were saved from our most base instincts... I hope.
TV Guide: When you are riffing off of a real-life event, how do you decide what to keep the same and what to change or "twist"?
The second you start working on it, you're just trying to make a good story. You don't want it to be just a reenactment, so you try and think about what might have happened. What I like to do is take a situation in which there wasn't necessarily a murder and throw one in and see what that does to these people who, in this case, are under enormous pressure and now a body shows up in the middle of their world and how the different people react to it. I don't know about at TV Guide, but certainly if there were a murder at Law & Order, like everybody would be a suspect because we are all under such intense pressure all the time.
TV Guide: How did you go about picking the guest stars for this episode?
You hope for the best with casting, which worked out in this episode. We got Tate Donovan to play an astronaut, which I thought was fantastic — you buy him. I love [The Wire's] Amy Ryan [as the wife] as well.
TV Guide: Does it get harder and harder, as reality tends to get weirder and weirder, to try and "trump" reality for the purposes of TV storytelling?
Yeah, we're sometimes in the same position that political satirists are in — what the hell are you going to do? You don't do 22 episodes a season that are ripped from headlines as big as this, [but] for May sweeps it's a perfect time to have a story like this break. You have to mix it up — you can't do 22 astronaut stories a year, because after a while the wheels would come off the wagon.
TV Guide: Do you think people who have been following the real-life story will be satisfied with the version you've come up with? Leight: Yeah, if you've done it decently. Five or 10 minutes in, maybe you're waiting for the diapers to show up or something like that, but you start to engage with these characters. Otherwise, if you haven't pulled that off, then just switch the channel and watch Nancy Grace reporting on all this stuff. The idea is to create a 42-minute morality play. We have to have a beginning, middle and an end. Obviously a lot of these stories lack a narrative structure — and that's our job. Reality isn't as tidy as the shows, I think.
TV Guide: On a broader scale, I've noticed tension between Goren (Vincent D'Onofrio) and his new boss, Capt. Danny Ross (Eric Bogosian). Is that going to come to a head?
Det. Goren has been under a lot of stress this season and so a lot of that is going to come to a head in the episode [airing May 15]. Rita Moreno, Tony Goldwyn and Roy Scheider will be in that one. [Tonight's] episode is sort of the quiet before the storm, a nice, good crime with seemingly decent people who've overreacted to the stresses in their lives. It's a good ride, but the next Goren episode is the storm.
TV Guide: You're also a Tony-winning playwright (Side Man). What's it like writing for Law & Order: Criminal Intent as opposed to writing for the stage?
It's the same tools, except that you're doing it every eight days. Every eight days we're knocking out a 42-minute [episode]. What I have to do here is write fast and make quick decisions. This is a marathon run at the pace of a sprint. It develops your stamina in ways I hadn't thought possible — it's exhausting. And there's really never an opening-night party, which is kind of sad. You just keep hitting the ground running.
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