On the final snowy morning of a long New York winter, two mounted police officers discover a man lying on a Central Park bench. Dazed and bleeding, he appears to be a robbery victim. Later, at the hospital, a doctor confirms that there has indeed been a theft: One of the man's kidneys is missing. The detective assigned to the case barely flinches. ''Talk about getting your pocket picked,'' he says.
Truth or tall tabloid tale? Hoax or newly minted urban legend? In a city whose police blotter regularly inspires stories on the order of ''Headless Body in Topless Bar,'' the writers and producers of NBC's gritty crime drama Law & Order know that the Case of the Kidnapped Kidney is far from impossible; that's what made inventing it such fun.
Inspired by the fumes of headline ink and filmed in the unfakeable streets, stores, gutters, alleys, and parks of New York City, Law & Order, which begins its second season on NBC Sept. 17, is an anomaly among this fall's prime-time series. It's the only network drama to be shot in New York and the only one to embrace such a relentlessly unromanticized, concentrated storytelling style. But the show's no-frills manner has captivated viewers. Last season, as other acclaimed hour-long ensemble series (thirtysomething, China Beach) saw their audiences shrink and their runs end, Law & Order became TV's most popular new drama series; this summer, its reruns have occasionally reached Nielsen's top 20. Its format for success is unique: Two policemen pursue criminals for the first half hour, and a pair of lawyers try them for the second. And although the show's malfeasants often bear more than a coincidental resemblance to urban tabloid stars like Bernhard Goetz or the Mayflower Madam, Law & Order's plots coil and spring in very surprising directions. ''We may rip off a headline,'' says executive producer Dick Wolf,44. ''But we don't take the story along with it.''
With its main Tuesday competitor, ABC's thirtysomething, now gone, Law & Order stands poised for breakout success. But it isn't coming easily. ''The series has never been undramatic,'' admits Michael Moriarty, who stars as assistant district attorney Ben Stone. ''On the air or off.''
In one such drama, Law & Order this summer lost George Dzundza, who starred as Det. Sgt. Max Greevey. After putting in a year which by some accounts was less than cheerful on the set maybe that's why Greevey was always scowling Dzundza asked to be released from his contract and returned to the West Coast. So in this season's first episode, Det. Mike Logan (Christopher Noth) will get a new partner, Det. Sgt. Phil Cerreta, played by Paul Sorvino.