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

"I'm not going to go through a list of platitudes, but, yes, it's going to have an impact. I just don't think it's a world-shattering event, as awful as it is. It's not something that will change the course of history...On the other hand, I'm kind of a guy who believes the glass is half full. As awful as this is, there may be something good that comes from it. If nothing else, Arafat declares a cease-fire, and Ariel Sharon decides, OK, now we can talk with the PLO. If nothing else, there's one thing. Sometimes, it takes a very sobering, awful tragedy to wake people up."

But what happens now that we're awake...and unable to fall back asleep, lest we let down our guard and make ourselves easy prey? Law & Orderhas always been a television show very much grounded in the real world, the awful here and now. Its plots have long been ripped from today's headlines: mothers who kill their children, politicians caught in sex scandals, priests who molest parishioners, revelers who attack bystanders in Central Park, athletes who have their girlfriends offed. But the show must now grapple with the fact that the headlines, big and bold, scream only one thing: AMERICA UNDER ATTACK.

Balcer is no stranger to war. He began his career, by accident, as a cameraman covering the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. He had gone to Israel to visit a girlfriend and landed just as the Egyptian and Syrian armies were storming the country, on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. He got his hands on a camera and went to work for Canadian television. But he must now contemplate how to let his televised fiction deal with horrific fact.

Balcer insists that Law & Order's reputation as a based-on-actual-events show is a bit misleading; he likes to say it doesn't simply offer "knee-jerk reactions to reality." Though the show's staff writers and freelancers, most of whom are based in Los Angeles, often construct their teleplays from newspaper stories, they're merely inspiration for plot lines--not the whole truth and nothing but. After all, this is fiction, entertainment, a diversion, not docudrama. While agents and authors hustle to publish books about the terrorist bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon--two are due within days, and more are sure to follow--television, especially series TV, bides its time and searches for some kind of opening. There is no rush.

"And I think something like the events of [September 11] are so huge that we still can't get our heads around it, let along start being contemplative about them," Balcer says. "We don't know what else is going to happen as a result of this. I hate to go back to Pearl Harbor, because I don't think it's an accurate parallel, but it's like trying to do a story about Pearl Harbor in isolation, without going into what led up to it and what followed. And right now, we don't know what's going to follow, so that would be another reason not to go to it as a story. And also, I would be very skeptical about motivations for doing a story like this. It's too raw. Maybe two, three, four, five years from now, we can look back at it and hopefully mine it for more universal truths."

And it might all be a moot point: NBC has ordered only 13 episodes of Criminal Intent, which are all completed. The audience will decide whether there will be more: If the network is happy with the show's early ratings, Criminal Intentwill shoot nine more episodes at the end of January. For now, Balcer has little to do other than finish some small post-production details, wait for the show to debut...and talk about The Attack. He insists he is no more worried about the show's fate now than he was on, say, September 10. He says he'd be far more concerned if he was running The West Wing, which risks being rendered irrelevant--indeed, a completely useless fantasy--if it doesn't address the terrorist attacks. (It will, in at least one special episode to air October 3.) His is just a cop show. They've been around since the inception of the medium, and they'll outlive us all, war or no.

"Last week, we were talking about the entertainment business and, God, how silly everything is and how silly we are and what we do is," he says. "I think, well, there is a value in this. In New York last weekend, a lot of people went to museums. A lot of people went out and bought music. A lot of people went to plays. You can only stare at graves for so long, and you need to turn away from it in order to think about other things--in order to process the horror. Staring at it and staring at it forever is unhealthy. I'm not saying what we do is art, but art or popular entertainment helps put things in context. And it keeps us in touch with values that are eternal, that were there before and will be there after."

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