Remember that episode of “30 Rock” when Kenneth the page was given a position in NBC’s standards and practices department and proceeded to embrace his new role of censor with a Cotton Mather-like zeal, immediately locating a problem that cried out for a Thou-shalt-not ruling?
“We can’t say ‘Dick Wolf’ on TV!” Kenneth exclaimed indignantly.
Oh yes you can. Indeed, it sometimes seems as if the Peacock Network can’t say anything other than “Dick Wolf.” The multitasking maestro of the “Law & Order” franchise of scripted crime procedurals has been populating NBC’s prime-time lineup for decades.
It was only a month ago that “Law & Order: Organized Crime,” starring Christopher Meloni, premiered on NBC. Now Deadline reported this week that NBC has given a straight-to-series order for a new legal drama from Wolf and “CSI’s” Carol Mendelsohn, “Law & Order: For the Defense,” which will focus on defense attorneys.
It’s notable that Wolf is creating a show about the defense side of the courtroom. As protests against police violence have escalated amid the Black Lives Matter movement, Wolf and other creators of law-enforcement-centered narratives have come under criticism for the way police and prosecutors are glorified on television.
In June 2020, Washington Post culture columnist Alyssa Rosenberg called on Hollywood to “immediately halt production on cop shows and movies and rethink the stories it tells about policing in America.”
Wrote Rosenberg: “Say writers made a commitment not to exaggerate the performance of police. Audiences would have to be retrained to watch, for example, a version of ‘Special Victims Unit’ where the characters cleared only 33.4 percent of rape cases, or to accept that in almost 40 percent of murders and manslaughters, no suspect is arrested.”
In a statement to Deadline about “For the Defense,” Wolf said: “We spent the last 30 years on shows that played offense. Now it will be great to play defense, and being able to do it with Carol is an honor and an opportunity for both of us to do television that hasn’t been done before.”
We’ll have to see what he means by that last part, given that the history of television abounds with shows about defense attorneys (”Perry Mason” being a prominent example).
The original “L&O” premiered three decades ago. It has spawned such spinoffs as “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Law & Order: Trial by Jury,” “Law & Order: True Crime,” and “Law & Order: LA.”
That’s not even to mention Wolf’s Chicago-based NBC dramas (”Chicago P.D.,” “Chicago Med,” and “Chicago Fire”) or his “FBI” on CBS. In addition, Deadline reports that “NBC has been looking to do another offshoot, ‘Law & Order: Hate Crimes,’ for several years.”
“Law & Order” and its spinoffs have provided a lot of employment to a lot of New York stage actors over the decades. I can’t count the number of actor bios I’ve read in Playbill that have listed appearances on the show. It’s such a running gag in the Broadway and off-Broadway community that one actress noted she “has never appeared on ‘Law & Order’” in her bio.
Television has certainly had its share of prolific producers throughout its history, from contemporary powerhouses like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy to, going back a ways, Norman Lear and Aaron Spelling. But few if any have ever been as ubiquitous as Dick Wolf. He could practically program a network by himself, if the network didn’t mind. And NBC doesn’t seem to.