The Renewal Negotiations Saga: Here Come The TV Critics

Yesterday in checking into the French fan forum at lawandorder-fr.com, I was treated to a discussion thread reminding me that the French celebrate May 1st as a holiday. One of the male members of the forum left all of the women a photo of lillies of the valley — my all time favorite flower — as a sort of virtual present. I appreciated the inherent class and thoughtfulness of the gesture and the discussion thread reminded me that the lillies of the valley in my back yard ought to be in bloom, so this morning I went out and gathered a bunch of them. They are beautiful to look at, they smell fantastic, and they are deserving of the Victorian symbolism assigned to them: the ‘return of happiness’.

While how I think GE/NBC and Wolf are using the media in their negotiations posturing stinks to high heaven, a little searching for the latest news brought this pretty little bouquet of an editorial by David Blum of the NY Sun that indeed makes a little happiness return to my thoughts.

Ripped From the Airwaves Commentary

“Ripped From the Airwaves
Commentary
By DAVID BLUM
May 2, 2007

“Creative people come up with creative solutions,” Dick Wolf recently told the New York Times in a story about the dwindling prospects for keeping “Law & Order” on television next year. Who am I to quibble with the genius who devised “Law & Order” back in 1990 and got millions of us hooked on its endlessly adaptable formula? But now Mr. Wolf needs an equally creative inspiration if he wants to save his show and its spin-offs from cancellation later this month. Yelling at NBC executives isn’t it.

The creator of “Law & Order” and its progeny faces the distinct possibility that at least two “Law & Order” shows will be cancelled at the end of this season. As always, he’s furious. NBC argues that the shows’ ratings have plummeted — at least those of “Law & Order,” the flagship, and its latest surviving spinoff, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” — and has hinted broadly that both face the ax when the 2007–08 fall schedules are announced this month. To Mr. Wolf, it’s outrageous that NBC’s attention to its bottom-line interferes with his plan to outlast “Gunsmoke” on the air. Only three more seasons and he would achieve that distinction in the record books, as though that’s reason enough to keep it around.

Bad time slots! No promotion! Don’t worry, I’ll re-cast! Those rank among Mr. Wolf’s most dependable rants in response to low ratings, and he has spilled them to the press in recent weeks, hoping, in vain, for loyal viewers to take to the streets in protest over the prospect of cancellation. Mr. Wolf would rather wrangle with executives than spend time contemplating the creative failures that have left his once-addictive show without a loyal audience. Only one of his spin-offs, “Law & Order: SVU,” has found ratings success in recent years, and that’s because it traffics in the sort of sex-abuse cases that resemble ratings hits like “CSI.”

Anyone who once loved the dramatic tension of a great “Law & Order” episode from the 1990s has acknowledged the show’s failure to sustain its premise for 17 seasons. Stories once twisted and turned with the cleverness of Hitchcock and Highsmith; true fans can remember classic episodes like the one in which the comedian Larry Miller murdered his wife and got away with it — only to be caught seasons later when he killed wife no. 2. Intricate story lines and great New York actors doing memorable star turns (among them Philip Bosco, Bruce Altman, and Edie Falco) enhanced the show’s cast of regulars, a gifted ensemble that included Steven Hill, Carey Lowell, and Sam Waterston.

But in recent seasons, the show has fallen back on the tired “ripped from the headlines” motif that has all too often made it feel predictable and lame. “Law & Order” never quite recovered from the death of Jerry Orbach or the departure of Benjamin Bratt, the best one-two detective punch it ever offered. Its latest lineup of cops and prosecutors (mostly cast from the Wolf playbook of brunette hotties) look like they’re reading off cue cards. When you start longing for the days when Angie Harmon was an assistant district attorney, you know the show has reached a tragic state of disrepair.

The desperation for a new audience has crept into the scripts; this season, all three “Law & Order” series have violated a stated vow to avoid character backstory. Last Friday’s “Law & Order” episode ended with the surprise appearance of Mr. Waterston’s character’s daughter, and a two-part “SVU” with Mariska Hargitay investigating whether her mother was raped. We’ve also recently spent time with Vincent D’Onofrio’s mother and brother on “Criminal Intent,” and we’re none the wiser for it.

Whatever happened to pure, simple crime-solving? I’ve even started to miss the crazy jigsawpuzzle openings of “Criminal Intent” from its early years, the ones that made no sense until you went back afterward to re-watch. Maybe they gave you a headache, but two extra-strength Tylenols seemed a small price to pay for a decent hour of television.

It’s not about quality anymore for Mr. Wolf, or even his antagonists at NBC. It’s about money, and how to squeeze profits from the diminishing revenue streams of network television. “I don’t know where the money is,” Mr. Wolf admitted to the Times in April. His only prospect is having sold the “format rights” to foreign countries, where local actors perform episodes of “SVU” and “Criminal Intent.” Isn’t that basically like selling the rights to “Our Town” to community theaters? Even Mr. Wolf admits that it amounts to nothing more than a “trickle” of revenue. He has no other answers, and no other ideas. It’s time to stop blaming the messenger for the deserved death of his firstborn, and let “Law & Order” drift peacefully into the endless afterlife of syndication.”

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