Law & Disorder

As one of TV's best and best-loved series launches a new spin-off, its creator grapples with the aftershocks of terror

Rene Balcer, like you and everyone you know, can't stop talking about what we now refer to simply as The Attack. We may resume our lives, fall back into our routine until it again feels mundane and comforting, but sooner or later, The Attack becomes the only topic of conversation. As we count the missing and bury the dead, even from a distance, and piece together what little remains of our stock portfolios and send friends and family off to fight the unseen enemy, we wonder and fret: How will the carnage and chaos of September 11 change our lives? Or will it? After all, who has time to worry about toppled landmarks and forthcoming war when a new season of Friends is about to begin? Like the president says, it's time for America to get back to business: Just who is the father of Rachel's baby?

On September 10, maybe we cared a little too much about that question. On September 11 and in the days since, it was doubtful we cared at all about what we saw on TV, save for images of smoke and rubble and a president behind a lectern. Movies were held out of theaters. Networks postponed the beginning of the fall season. The Emmys were pushed back until October 7; now, there comes word that HBO, up for nearly 100 awards, isn't even sending representatives to the awards show, and others may follow. The entertainment industry hides its collective head in shame. We're so pointless, mutter studio executives and record-label bosses, so inane.

And this, at last, is where Rene Balcer comes in. For 11 years, he has been a writer and executive producer on Law & Order, among the most successful and adored series in the history of the medium. On September 30, Balcer's name will be attached to the third installment in what has become a brand name: Law & Order: Criminal Intent, which differs from its predecessors, including Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, in that each episode begins with a crime being committed. We see bad men and women doing bad things: stealing diamonds, for starters, or murdering the innocent with broken bottles. And then we see good men and women, including Men in Black's Vincent D'Onofrio and Oz's Kathryn Erbe, solving the crime. As always, there is the patented Law & Order twist. We cannot always trust what we see or what we think we know.

Crime and punishment, redux: Vincent D'Onofrio heads the cast of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, one of the fall season's best new shows.
Crime and punishment, redux: Vincent D'Onofrio heads the cast of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, one of the fall season's best new shows.

Balcer is credited as the show's co-creator, with Dick Wolf, and developer. It was his idea, more or less--his characters, his setting, his stories. It was born out of the ashes of one of Wolf's failed shows, Crime & Punishment, which aired briefly in 1993 and told essentially the same kind of tale: Criminals spilled their guts to the unseen Interrogator. At this moment, Balcer would no doubt prefer to talk about his new television show. There is no one better suited to promote Criminal Intent, one of the few new shows of the fall worthy of your attention.

But the conversation, of course, keeps coming back to The Attack. And with great reason--a few, actually. First of all, the three Law & Order series were to be part of a five-hour mini-series dealing with bioterrorism in New York City. Those five hours of television no longer exist: NBC, Studios USA (which makes Law & Order) and others involved with the show axed the mini-series. Most likely, it will never see the light of day--a decision, Balcer says, that was a no-brainer, as far as he was concerned, though there were some among the staff who believed it could be merely pushed back.

"Some of the people who had worked and invested a lot of time and effort into the mini-series may have entertained thoughts of finding a way of still doing it," says Balcer, who, the day before this interview (September 20), returned to Los Angeles after spending a few days in New York City with his wife, who lives in Manhattan. "But I think cooler heads prevailed. In the aftermath of such a big shock, everybody reacts differently, and it's hard to hold people accountable for what they do in a crisis and in the immediate aftermath."

Discussions have been taking place all over New York and Los Angeles, as studios started yanking movies that had anything to do with terrorism, mayhem, and mass murder and networks started rethinking shows that depicted exploding airplanes (Fox's 24) and mentioned Osama bin Laden (CBS's The Agency). A few days after the World Trade Center collapsed to the ground like a child's toy model, Balcer even received a phone call from a writer-producer on another show--he won't say which, only that it's been on the air "for a couple of years"--seeking his advice. The call came out of the blue: Balcer (pronounced bal-SAY) had never even met the woman on the other end of the line.

"She told me people at her show were sitting around wondering how do we write for a universe that no longer exists," says Balcer, once a journalist for a now-defunct Canadian newspaper. "She seemed pretty distraught. She was referring to the idea that as of now, everything changes. That's an amorphous catchphrase. We don't really know what that means. My thought was, ďWell, if aliens landed, that would change the universe. That would change everything. That would change our views about ourselves, our view of God, of evolution, etc., etc.' I don't know if this is an event that changes everything. I think it will change some perceptions about our own safety, our role in the world, so forth.

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