When NBC released the sad news last week that "Law & Order" would be canceled after 20 years on the air, the show's creator and producer, Dick Wolf, stopped well short of howling. In fact, he went the inscrutable route: "Never complain, never explain" was the terse little statement he released to the press.
By Monday, Wolf was feeling slightly more expansive.
"The patient is not dead," he said in another statement. "It is in a medically induced coma, and we are hoping for a cure." Likely translation: "Law & Order" won't be back on NBC in the fall, but that doesn't mean it won't be back somewhere else.
"Law & Order" is not just a series but also the lead ship in a large armada. It proved so successful in its first decade or so that Wolf and NBC kept spinning other shows off it, none of them quite as good as the prototype but none of them negligible, either.
Viewers who enjoy off-network showings of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," with sexy sex-crime fighters Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay, on USA may not realize which network it's "off." Technically, this "Law & Order" has its first run on USA and its second on NBC. Since NBC owns USA, it probably doesn't matter anyway.
"Law & Order" has become, to be as unromantic as possible about it, a triumph of what is now popularly called "branding" and, to be a bit loftier about it, an American classic, a gift that keeps on giving — certainly to Wolf, who has to have made six or seven fortunes on it, but also to the viewing audience, which gets to see not one but several intelligent adult dramas every week.
The original and very basic "Law & Order" series has always seemed to me to be 100-percent exposition, with no filler, no pesky nuances and almost no background about the series' continuing characters — just the hard nuts and bolts of pure storytelling.
But the series has departed from the rigid schematic this season by telling a parallel continuing story of a continuing character: the struggle of Lt. Anita van Buren with a ne'er-do-well ex-husband and, more traumatically, with a disease progressing through her body, scaring and scarring her as only such things can. S. Epatha Merkerson, who plays the part, gets to contribute the kinds of shadings and subtleties that the show rarely has time for.
On what was to be the final "Law & Order" of the season — and now may be the last episode ever (airing Monday) —Merkerson plays one of her most dramatic scenes with her back to the camera. It may seem an odd choice for the director and the actor, but it works out very effectively, with Merkerson making it more than an acting exercise.
From a producer's point of view, of course, "Law & Order" presents an ideal — a show that is almost entirely actor-proof, that can keep going and going no matter what happens to the cast or how many actors demand raises. (You want a raise? Goodbye.) Over the years, many cops and prosecutors have passed through the precinct, Merkerson being one of the best and most compelling — while many left the show for other work.
The greatest performance of all, however, has been Wolf's, whether sparring with thick-skulled network executives or, as currently, issuing terse riddles disguised as press releases and jockeying for position. He is a man who had an idea and saw it through to magnificent execution, and he's earned himself a great big place in the pantheon for his trouble.