Prime Time Crime

Television is not what you'd call the most inventive entertainment medium on the planet. One network strikes gold with a game show, everyone gets one. One program hits it big with corpses, suddenly the bodies start piling up. And then there's "Law & Order," the show that reproduces so often, you think it should start using contraception. This season, there were three versions of "Law & Order" on NBC: the original (Wednesdays), "Special Victims Unit" (Fridays) and "Criminal Intent" (Sundays). But they're just the beginning. Through the miracle of syndication, you can find "Law & Order" somewhere on TV 27 times a week. That's more often than most of us brush our teeth. Which may explain NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker's response when "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf approached him with a summer version of the shows. "My reaction," says Zucker, "was, 'You want to do another "Law & Order" series?' "

Silly question. Who wouldn't want another "Law & Order," arguably the biggest TV franchise ever? What's surprising is how "Crime & Punishment," the spinoff that NBC is debuting this week, tinkers with the series' DNA. Whereas the other "Law & Order" installments are tightly crafted dramas that specialize in crimes that have been "ripped from the headlines," "Crime & Punishment" is a real reality show. Each episode follows the prosecution of an actual crime, shot mostly in the courtroom--sort of like the "Order" part without the "Law" and the overheated soliloquies. "Crime & Punishment" lacks the moral quandaries that anchor the best "Law & Order" episodes, but in some ways it's better than its predecessors. There's something astonishing about knowing these crimes and criminals are real, especially since the new show features the same creepy characters and dramatic twists for which the dramas are famous. At the end of an episode about a man who stabs his wife to death because he thinks she cheated on him, the defendant lunges for the bailiff's gun and a melee ensues. Even better is the moment when the husband turns to his mother in the gallery and gives her a disgustingly cocky wink. On "Law & Order," a moment like that would come across as stagy. On "Crime & Punishment," it's chilling.

As anyone knows from watching 20 minutes of Court TV, the concept of courtroom drama is an oxymoron in real life. But "Crime & Punishment" has a secret weapon: its cameras. The show uses three of them, and they can do close-ups, pans and sweeps. "If you look at most documentaries in the courts, there's one camera in a locked-down position, like in the O.J. trial," says Wolf. "This is shot like a documentary, but we cut it like a drama. It's a dramamentary." It also didn't hurt that these cases were in San Diego. Wolf says he went there because the district attorney was pro-death penalty, but the locale also provided a fringe benefit. The attorneys in "Crime & Punishment" are gorgeous. "People who live in San Diego do tend to look a lot better in February than people living in Detroit," Wolf says.

Believe it or not, "Law & Order" itself was once an ugly duckling. It spent its first few years stuck near the ratings' basement. "It had the highest advertiser pullout in the history of NBC, and it wasn't because of the violence," says Wolf. "We were discussing adult ideas, like abortion. The sales department hated it with a passion." But Brandon Tartikoff, then the NBC Entertainment president, loved the show, and over the years it found a following. In 1999, NBC signed on to a spinoff focusing on sex crimes, "Special Victims Unit." This year, it added a version with a whodunit flavor, "Criminal Intent." Meanwhile, the original just gets bigger. This season--its 12th--it reached No. 6. "Dick is a great consumer of television. He's aware of where shows go off track," says Susan Lyne, president of Entertainment at ABC. " 'Law & Order' is a very satisfying hour of television."

Make that hours. "Dick already had plans for 'Law & Order' 5," says Zucker, who admits he'd probably take that one, too. "Look, every 'Law & Order' keeps doing incredibly well. I'm not sure where the end is." Wolf is looking to infinity and beyond. "The question you ask yourself is not is there another 'Law & Order,' but is there one as unique as the ones that are on," says Wolf, who not coincidentally was in advertising before going to Hollywood. " 'Law & Order' is branded. The only thing that could hurt [it] is a bad brand extension, like New Coke or green Pepto-Bismol--which I worked on and is truly a horrible idea."

While he's cooking up another "extension," Wolf will also take on a second cop show--"Dragnet," which he's remaking for ABC. He says it will be true to the original, though he's not above making some changes, including renaming Joe Friday. "It depends on who ends up in the Jack Webb role," says Wolf. "I'd say it's 50-50." Though he knows better than most the risks of tinkering with a classic. "I veer from total euphoria to sheer terror," Wolf says. "A year from now, I could be the guy who screwed up 'Dragnet'." Fortunately, his other job is pretty secure.