As Dick Wolf, the prolific TV producer and creator of the hugely successful Law & Order and Chicago franchises, gets settled at our table at the Four Seasons in the Midtown neighborhood of New York City, longtime TV producer Mark Burnett stops by to say hello. During a quick exchange of pleasantries, the two joke that they should create a Wolf-Burnett network.
“We’d have too much product,” Wolf says with a chuckle. While a lighthearted exchange, the reality is that between the two of them, they have more than enough content for a 24-7 channel. For Wolf’s part, he has his two TV franchises, not to mention the many crime procedurals he’s created and produced over the years. Meanwhile, Burnett has The Apprentice, among many other shows. But it’s the reality show formerly hosted by President Donald Trump that sticks out, considering that any moment, around the corner at Trump Tower, he’s about to deliver his first press conference since being elected.
Politics (and that shelved Trump-inspired Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode) aside, Wolf is here to talk about the legacy of Law & Order. “Diligence is its own reward,” Wolf says when asked for his biggest takeaway from the success of the show-turned-franchise. Law & Order has spawned six spinoffs, including SVU, which aired its 400th episode on Feb. 8, as well as the upcoming True Crime and You the Jury, and has seen its TV universe expanded to include the Chicago series, which will see the debut of Justice in March. Justice joins Med, P.D. and Fire, which Wolf jokingly compares to the human body -- the first three being brain, heart and muscle, respectively, with the latter the “crotch.”
And in an era of peak TV, which saw 455 scripted shows produced in 2016, it’s no small feat for a show like SVU to not only reach 400 episodes, but also be eyeing the record for longest-running live-action prime-time scripted series. If it makes it to 21 -- a goal of his -- or beyond, SVU will take the title from Law & Order and Gunsmoke, which currently share bragging rights.
“People come up to me now and say, ‘Have you seen such and such?’ And I say, ‘Seen it? I’ve never even heard of it,’” Wolf says, “and I’m pretty plugged in to what’s on television.”
While certain shows struggle to find an audience or reach critical mass, the Law & Order franchise, in particular, has seeped into the national subconscious. “That doesn’t happen anymore because the structure of how people consume television has changed completely,” he says, adding that he hopes that the Chicago franchise will be able to achieve the same. “As we move into the future, it’s going to become more and more unique.”
But what also separates the Law & Order franchise is the quality. Law & Order and SVU have earned a combined 12 Emmy awards, while SVU had a historic run of back-to-back nominations in the Outstanding Guest acting categories from 2000 to 2010, only missing out in 2001 and 2006.
“A-level work is not a hope, it’s an expectation,” Wolf says of what sets his shows apart, adding that the biggest challenge “if you’re doing what I modestly call A-level television, is quality control.” In fact, he points to the writing, which has served as the foundation for all of his series, as the source of its longevity. “That has never changed… it’s always the writing.”
Of course, the branding doesn’t hurt. For Law & Order’s part, it’s a franchise that has existed since 1990. “First of all, I’m obviously a huge fan of branding,” Wolf, a former advertising copywriter-turned-screenwriter, says when it comes to the creation of each new series under the umbrella of its respective franchise, whether it’s Chicago Justice or Law & Order: True Crime. “It tells people that you’re working at a specific level. If it says Law & Order, you’re not going to be disappointed.”
“It’s why ‘Chicago’ is the first word in all the Chicago shows. If you like one, you’re probably not going to hate the others,” he says matter-of-factly.
“We use what we know are comfort zones for the audience,” Wolf says, pointing to the now-iconic “ching chings” -- or “chung chungs” or “dun duns,” depending on who you ask to recreate Law & Order’s signature sound -- that will be part of True Crime, the first nonfiction scripted series of the Law & Order franchise. “Anywhere in the world you go at this point, you can go, ‘Dun dun,’ and people know exactly what you’re talking about,” Anika Noni Rose, a one-time guest star on SVU, says in a separate conversation about the franchise, further cementing Wolf’s point.
When it comes to True Crime, an eight-episode anthology series focused on Lyle and Erik Menendez, brothers convicted in 1996 of killing their parents, Wolf says other familiar parts will be there. Steven Zirnkilton, the voice of the franchise who provides the opening narration, will do the same for this series, and Mike Post will compose a variation on the familiar theme music. The major difference that sets True Crime apart is the last line of narration, which will read: “Everything you see is true.”
Wolf says adding a true-crime series to his fictional-yet-ripped-from-the-headlines franchise will make sense to the audience. “It’s not a documentary, so you’re going to have actors saying the lines,” he says, adding that this series will feature higher-profile talent, including Emmy winner Edie Falco, who NBC just announced will portray defense attorney Leslie Abramson. In a statement, Wolf said, “[She] will knock the role out of the park.”
Admittedly, expectations for True Crime are high, especially with the genre reaching peak frenzy thanks to the Netflix docuseries Making a Murderer and FX’s American Crime Story. But Wolf has the utmost confidence in writer and executive producer Rene Balcer, who developed Law & Order: Criminal Intent and worked on several of the spinoffs. “Rene is, utmost unquestionably, the best pure procedural crime writer in the last 20 years,” Wolf says. Coincidentally, Balcer’s first Law & Order writing credit was the 1991 ripped-from-the-headlines episode “The Serpent's Tooth,” inspired by the Menendez case.
While Wolf now largely serves as the man behind the curtain of his ever-growing TV empire, he does still enjoying writing from time to time, often working with different showrunners to develop story ideas. “I like doing them and turning them over,” he says, adding with a chuckle: “If I can actually get my ideas made, it’s fabulous.”