Following last year's cancellation of the original New York version of the series after a venerable 20-year run -- a record matched in drama only by the classic Western Gunsmoke -- a new spawn will appear this fall: Law & Order: Los Angeles.
While some may dismiss this latest iteration of Dick Wolf's procedural formula as "more of the same, only different," to me, the creation of a Law & Order in Los Angeles signals a cultural watershed, a moment to consider what living here means and to question how our concepts of justice and ethics, crime and punishment, play out in a city whose geography has often been its destiny and whose police force and city prosecutor's office have their own specific histories and culture.
To get a sense of how the show might navigate our freeways and byways, I spoke with René Balcer, executive producer of the new show and, since 1996, a veteran of what he calls "the mother ship." With Balcer having weathered so many homicides from week to week over the years, I wondered what he thought Los Angeles would have to offer in the way of murder.
"There's no end to the crime story, starting with Cain and Abel," Balcer told me. "People are always coming up with new ways of dispatching their fellow man. And for different reasons ... I don't think we've done it all."
Law & Order has always relied on a uniquely compelling structure -- in the first half of the program, police investigate a crime (usually a homicide); in the second half, lawyers from the District Attorney's office prosecute. The L.A. version will be no different.
Like the original, the story will be told through two police officers and two deputy district attorneys -- but, like identical twins might at first glance seem the same, the Los Angeles version, due to its own idiosyncrasies, inevitably will be different from its New York sibling.
In New York, Balcer believes, cultures clash more, and people get in one another's faces, while Los Angeles is a "patchwork of different cultures," a city where denizens of the Westside need never go to the Eastside, nor those from South L.A. to the Valley; where beaches are free, but in some places, public access is made difficult (particularly in the enclaves of Malibu). Such insularity will affect the storytelling in the new show. "Each episode can concentrate in a certain area of town and deal with the culture almost, but not quite, in isolation," Balcer said.
Over the course of its storied run, Law & Order became known for not delving much into characters' personal lives, for taking stories "ripped from the headlines" and for making interesting casting choices that often gave serious roles to stand-up comics and stage actors largely unknown to TV audiences. The L.A. version will uphold those traditions, for the most part -- tweaking them to reflect the character of the city.
Given that in this city, private matters are just a prelude to publicity, Balcer admitted that there will be "five degrees" more focus on the characters' private lives outside the office.
In creating the two detectives and the two D.A.s, who will alternate weekly, Balcer and the other writers hope to reflect the complicated ideologies, loyalties, lifestyles, career paths and ambitions that characterize Los Angeles.
In Law & Order, Jerry Orbach's Lennie Briscoe captured a specific New York Jewish ethnicity that was pervasive in some of the episodes (after the show was canceled, Heeb magazine ran a feature highlighting the eight most Jewy episodes). But Balcer feels the show and its L.A. descendant are more universal, saying, "In the world of crime, every ethnic group and religious group is well represented."
Balcer, who is concurrently writing a miniseries about the LAPD in the 1960s, wants Law & Order: Los Angeles to acknowledge the city's police history, both good and bad, including its history of bias, from its many former John Birch Society members to the corruption of the Rampart scandal.
The main detectives are Rex Winters (Skeet Ulrich), who as a rookie went through the Rodney King riots, and his younger partner, Tomas "T.J." Jaruszalski (Corey Stall), whose father is a Polish émigré cinematographer and who, in Balcer's words, "thinks being a cop is the most fun anyone can have ... [like being] front row at the circus everyday." Their lieutenant is Arleen Gonzales (Wanda De Jesus), a 20-year veteran who was one of the office's first women detectives. "She's gay; she has a life partner who's younger; they have an 11-year-old son together," Balcer said.
On the prosecution side, the alternating deputy D.A.s are Ricardo Morales (Alfred Molina), a first-generation Latino whose father was a groundskeeper at Hillcrest Country Club, "a political animal" whose goal is to become District Attorney, which he sees not only as a stepping stone but "the place to do the most good." He is assisted by attorney Evelyn Price (Regina Hall), an African American who grew up in Baldwin Hills, the daughter of a successful upper-middle-class businessman who, although aware of "all the foibles of the LAPD," will choose law over anarchy.
By contrast, Deputy D.A. Jonah Dekker (Terrence Howard) is more of a free spirit and creative legal thinker. "This is not going to be his last job." His assistant D.A. is Lauren Gardner -- the character's name may change -- (Megan Boone), who comes from a well-off San Marino family with right-of-center politics (think Angie Harmon on the mother ship).
As for the stories, Balcer said celebrities will only be about "one-tenth of the cases, because there are a lot more crimes that happen in L.A. ... but don't get the publicity." A mix of national stories will be told with an L.A. hook, along with stories unique to the region.
"For example, in Temecula," Balcer said, "there's a big controversy over the building of a mosque -- well, that's an L.A. story, even though that story's being replicated in other places in the country. And there are some that are unique to L.A. -- like the backdrop to the financing of something like Proposition 8. That would be fertile ground for a story." Balcer also said he and his writers are working on a story about "second-generation Russian immigrants who get kidnapped in L.A. in order to shake down their rich relatives back in Moscow."
When we spoke, Balcer was only a few days into filming the first episode. Scripts for half of the first 13-episode order had been written, and the rest were in process.
Will the show succeed? Will it ring true? Will it convey how morality and justice are two shades of gray in a city where everyone wears sunglasses?
From my conversation with Balcer, Los Angeles already seemed to be becoming a character in its own drama -- a city set in a desert where strong hands grasp at sand.
This article originally appeared in The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, issue of September 3, 2010