With Law & Order’s upset Emmy victory, creator Dick Wolf took a big step toward the inner circle of quality-TV-drama producers who are household names, a group that includes Steven Bochco and … well, Steven Bochco. But with the Oct. 17 debut of his latest NBC series, Players, Wolf takes a big step backward.
What may surprise those who know Wolf only from L&O is that the show may be less typical of the producer’s oeuvre than is Players, a screeching, witless action vehicle that casts rapper Ice-T as ”Ice” (of course), the leader of a trio of cons paroled to do undercover FBI work. In fact, Players seems a spiritual throwback to Wolf’s first NBC series effort, 1990’s Nasty Boys, about a vice squad that ran around Las Vegas in ninja garb. Boys, which lasted five months, is notable only for the presence of Benjamin Bratt, now L&O’s Det. Rey Curtis, and Dennis Franz as a gruff-but-lovable lieutenant. Still, Boys lived longer than H.E.L.P., Wolf’s sole ABC series, which expired after six weeks in 1990. A pre-Frasier John Mahoney starred as the chief of the Harlem Eastside Lifesaving Program, with a young Wesley Snipes as a cop. One other thing set H.E.L.P. apart: It was filmed in New York City, where Wolf returned when L&O premiered the following fall.
Rather than trying to duplicate the Big Apple in a cheaper or more convenient location like Toronto or L.A., Wolf has wisely insisted his Manhattan-set shows actually shoot there. While L&O’s cast has turned over frequently, one character has remained the same: New York City. The series captures it in all its seedy splendor. You can practically smell the urine in the streets.
L&O has also maintained its torn-from-the-tabloids story lines (this season’s first two episodes conflated details of four sensational teen-murder cases) and bifurcated structure, in which the first half follows cops, and the second deals with DAs. In recent seasons, L&O has relaxed its policy of not following its characters home, and we’ve learned more about Bratt’s Curtis (his wife has MS) and Carey Lowell’s ADA Jamie Ross (she fought a bitter custody battle).
Wolf tried — and failed — twice to duplicate L&O’s formula, first with 1993’s ill-conceived Crime & Punishment (the opening half concerned criminals, the second, cops) and then with last season’s Feds, a serviceable CBS series that got lost in the glut of gritty urban-crime dramas. He’s also produced two flops starring Brooklyn South’s Yancy Butler (Mann & Machine and South Beach), a Murder, She Wrote wannabe (Tom Conti’s The Wright Verdicts), an ER prototype (The Human Factor, with Mahoney and Eriq La Salle), and the ultraviolent Swift Justice, which couldn’t survive one season on UPN. He’s enjoyed modest success with Fox’s New York Undercover, which will return later this season, but NYU has more in common with Players than L&O (Ice-T even guested on NYU as a drug lord).