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The really long arm of Law

Behind the scenes of 'Law and Order' -- EW checks in on the courtroom drama to see how it remains fresh four shows and 550 crimes later

No matter how many times Christopher Meloni strips for the camera, he can't get it right. He's been peeling off his shirt all afternoon on this New Jersey soundstage, baring his heaving chest and rippling abs as costar Mariska Hargitay and the rest of the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit cast and crew watch with big eyes and open mouths.

And yet, something about the scene just isn't working. ''Chris,'' the director says yet again, ''let's do it one more time.'' Even when sporting more demure detective attire, Meloni is one of the two reasons SVU is the hottest cop drama on television today. Thanks to the 43-year-old actor's brooding intensity (and his workout regimen) and Hargitay's equally alluring tough-chick charm (and her workout regimen), this show about unspeakable sex crimes and the cops who solve them has become a surprise sensation in its sixth year, scoring some of its best ratings ever (a rarity for a show this age), nabbing a Golden Globe win in January for Hargitay (a rarity for any Law & Order series), and outperforming its parent (a rarity for any TV show).

''People hear ching-ching and they come into the room,'' jokes Dick Wolf, the 58-year-old former Madison Avenue adman behind all the Law & Order shows. ''It's Pavlovian.''

And omnipresent. Wolf's stable of shows — Law & Order (age: 15), SVU, and Criminal Intent (age: 4) — air up to six times a week on NBC and another 40 times on cable. As the Peacock network likes to boast, more than 100 million people will see an L&O episode during any given month. But in September, Wolf's aging empire, aside from SVU, began to look fallible. The original L&O, under attack from CBS' CSI: NY, lost its time slot for the first time in eight years. Criminal Intent was (and still is) being spanked by a bunch of randy Housewives, who have sent the series to its lowest ratings since its first season. And to make matters worse, CI was making headlines for reasons unrelated to its ratings: Tabloids blasted star Vincent D'Onofrio for fainting spells on the set. Then, sadly, in December, Jerry Orbach, one of the most beloved players in Wolf's team, passed away, just as he was helping to launch Wolf's fourth L&O baby, Trial by Jury.

So with Jury debuting on NBC March 3 at 10 p.m. (before moving to Fridays), EW decided it was time to ask some Lennie Briscoe-type questions of a franchise that's changed how networks program television — and how viewers watch it. How many shows about cops and lawyers can Wolf juggle? At what point does Wolf spread his franchise too thin? When do his shows start cannibalizing each other's audiences and plotlines? And why did Elisabeth Röhm's Serena suddenly come out of the closet? Indeed, execs at NBC are wondering some of the same things. ''When I heard there was a fourth Law & Order, I was skeptical. You don't want to be all Law & Order all the time. There is a point where you reach a critical mass. But who knows how many is too many,'' says NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly, in a moment of remarkable candor. ''There's no upside for Reilly,'' adds one L&O insider. ''If the show falls on its a-- , he's the idiot who ordered a fourth Law & Order. If it's a hit, he gets no credit because all he did was put on another Law & Order.''

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