After 19 years, how do you keep a TV show fresh? For Dick Wolf, executive producer of Law & Order (Wednesday, Nov. 5. 10 pm/ET, NBC), the season starts with a fortuitously, albeit coincidentally timed episode about a stockbroker who gets beaten to death. The circumstances surrounding the murder - street-fighting, a YouTube surrogate, a Gangs of New York reference - thrust DA Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) and Executive ADA Michael Cutter (Linus Roache) into a heated stand-off about, among other things, the definition of the word terrorism, believe it or not. Wolf talks about the ever-more-youthful cast, which series vets might return to the show, and why it's always a good idea to hire obsessive-compulsives.
TVGuide.com: Are you happy to be coming back early or would you have preferred the extra time, to return in January?
Dick Wolf: Scheduling choices are something that I have absolutely nothing to do with. I'm glad to be back on Wednesday at 10 is the bottom line. I mean, we're coming off the bench. Luckily, we're ready. I wish that we had had some more promo time, but the episodes are just fine.
TVGuide.com: Give us your take on the TV season so far.
Wolf: In one word? Disastrous. I mean, have I missed something? Is there a new breakout hit? This is the second year in a row where nothing has gotten traction and it's November. And that's not good for the business. But this is like complaining about global warming. Everybody is having a lousy year. My fondest hope is that Law & Order is going to carry the water here and help the network because, for better or worse, the rising tide raises all boats.
TVGuide.com: We're starting Season 19 here. Are you ever afraid that you're just going to run out of ideas?
Wolf: It's unfortunately a constantly renewable resource. When Brandon Tartikoff bought the show way back in the last century, he said, "What's the bible? And I said, "The front page of the New York Post." And it has not been a bad piece of source material because, you know, we can't come up with stories better than "Headless Body Found in Topless Bar." We steal the headline, but not the body copy. We love the flavor of the stories, but not the specificity. But it's a way into the moral quandary in the best episodes certainly.
TVGuide.com: Are you still gunning for that 20-year record?
Wolf: I'm gunning for 21. Twenty is just tied; 21 is the win. [Editor's Note: Gunsmoke and Lassie currently share the title for the longest-running scripted primetime series, at 20 years.]
TVGuide.com: So you've got the stockbroker episode, which is a bit of a happy accident for you guys. Are there any plans to deal with the current economic crisis in episodes somehow - you know, with more white-collar criminals or something?
Wolf: I would say no. It's not a question of that. It's a question of coming up with a storyline that starts with a murder that is interesting and not, you know, just exploiting a specific situation. Our hope is always to have a portion of the audience really pissed off at 10:56 and wanting to throw a brick through the TV. When you get into current events, you want to do something that makes people think. The perfect episode is yet to be written because that would have all six of the regulars on slightly different sides of the same question. And as you listen to the various arguments, you think, "My God, they're all right." I think that this financial situation is not going to go away in three months. This is much more than, you know, a bank robbery that got a lot of press.
TVGuide.com: Are you happy overall about the decision to switch Jack McCoy to be the DA rather than a courtroom lawyer?
Wolf: I think it has been enormously successful. It has given the writers new opportunities to explore character. If you watch the [season premiere], we've never had fireworks like we do between the DA and the Executive Assistant DA. Over the years, they've had disagreements, but never to the concentrated degree that we've had over last season and will continue into this season about philosophy, legal tactics and legal strategy for the office at large. I think it's a fascinating new color.
TVGuide.com: Do you have a favorite Law & Order?
Wolf: No, you love all your children. Is there a special, soft spot in your heart for your first? Of course. Luckily, the shows are vastly different and tread totally different territories: SVU is really a classic cop show geared toward sex crimes. But CI is much more Sherlock Holmes. [Law & Order] is, you know, a unique beast in terms of doing a crime from the streets to the courts. The double-gated structure of the show is still a joy and still provides remarkable opportunities to explore the entire gamut of human emotions, both positive and negative.
TVGuide.com: After 19 years, though, how do you keep it fresh - for both the audiences and yourself?
Wolf: About 15 years ago, for Christmas I sent the heads of all the networks little desk cards that said "It's the writing, stupid." You can have magnificent actors, but if the words suck, the show is going to suck. And luckily we have been blessed with a writing staff over the years that I believe is second to none. The other thing that I think has paid real dividends is that if you go back, say, three years, you had a cast where Dennis Farina was, I think, 62 or 63 at that point. [Waterston] was in his mid-50s. Fred [Thompson] was in his mid-60s. Now we have Sam as the DA, but Linus Roache is, I guess, 42, Jeremy Sisto is 38, and Anthony Anderson is 38 or 37. We've taken about more than 50 years out of the cast age. They're not kids, they're adults, but it is a decidedly different demographic than existed on the show not very long ago. So I think that that is a factor in keeping the next generation involved with the show.
TVGuide.com: We've seen Paul Robinette [played by Richard Brooks] return. We saw Carey Lowell return a few times. Any plans for any other Law & Order vets to stop by this season?
Wolf: In the episodes that have been written, no. But they might. I think the episodes that [Brooks] has done have been very, very interesting - to see him come back in a very expensive suit as obviously a mature defense attorney. I can easily see, you know, Fred coming back for something, whether it's a scene or an episode. Virtually everybody who has been on the show is welcome back if we have the right thing, I'd have no hesitation in approaching any of the ones who didn't die.
TVGuide.com: Is there a formula for your success?
I am the beneficiary of the hard work and dedication of literally hundreds of people, but certainly the actors, writers and producers on all the shows. Somebody asked me what I think I do best as a producer and I said unhesitatingly that I hire obsessive people, that if the public knew that most of the people on these shows are literally working, you know, 60-hour work weeks for 40 weeks in a row, they wouldn't believe me anyway. But that's what it takes to get these shows out. I benefit from others' obsessive-compulsive disorder.
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