Executive producer Rene Balcer joined Law & Order in 1990, second only to the franchise’s creator Dick Wolf in time served on the quintessential New York City show. TV Guide Magazine caught up with him in China to ask for his thoughts about the series after its unexpected cancellation.
When did you find out L&O was canceled?
Wednesday night last week. Then there was a reprieve, then Friday morning came the final swing of the axe. I have to admit, since I was in China at the time, most of the calls about the cancellation came to me in the middle of the night – so it’s all pretty much of a blur.
What was your first reaction?
As I said, I got the calls at about three or four in the morning. I kept hoping I’d wake up and find out it was all a bad dream. No such luck.
Were you surprised or not at the decision?
I’ve been in this business too long to be surprised by anything.
Was NBC’s decision, in your estimation, correct? Though the quality has been high, the ratings had faded.
This is like the perfect L&O episode – people can have six different opinions about NBC’s decision – and they’d all be right!
To your knowledge, could there be a cable option?
There is always a cable option.
It seems downright unfair after all 20 years of a such a ground-breaking show to end without a real series finale. Is there talk of either a TV movie or even several special episodes to wrap the storyline up in a way the show deserves?
I don’t know about unfair. I think in the best of all possible worlds, everyone involved would be happy to give the show a proper send-off.
Any ideas on how story-wise you would like the show to sign off?
You don’t seriously think I’d give that away, do you?
What is Law & Order’s legacy?
That’s for others to figure out. But it does prove that there is an appetite among the audience for smart shows that don’t pander or speak down to them. I also think that Law & Order is the one drama people will still be watching in repeats a hundred years from now,
What is your very favorite episode or moment from the show?
I have no one favorite episode, or rather I have many favorites. There’s one called “Thrill,” which is the opener of season eight and had a very emotional ending. It’s about the thrill killing of a pizza delivery kid by two other kids. They go off to the jail and the mother of the victim sends them off with this very moving speech. It was an episode that turned a lot of things on their heads. Issues of forgiveness and contrition and mixed them all up. It was a potent episode. Then there was “Memo from the Dark Side” where McCoy prosecutes [Dick] Cheney and the torture lawyers. And “Rubber Room”, the season 20 finale which I wrote and directed.
Your very favorite guest star?
This question can only get me in trouble. Let’s just say the dog Lupo adopted in “Submission” and leave it at that.
The mother ship may be gone but there will be Law & Order: Los Angeles. Will you work on that?
Cat’s already out of the bag on that one. I’m on LOLA to help Blake Masters and Dick get the show off the ground, and to help them realize their vision for the show.
Do you like LA as the site of the newest member of the franchise?
It’s a target-rich environment. LA was once known as the city on the edge of the future, but now that promise is somewhat tarnished. Cities in trouble are great settings for crime dramas – remember, L&O was launched in the middle of the crack wars in New York. But there’s a big difference between LA and NY – whereas NY is a true melting pot, LA is a mosaic of cultures living pretty much in their own enclaves. As Blake pointed out, you can get a series’ worth of shows by setting it in a different LA enclave every week.
What are New York actors going to do now? How important has the franchise been to the New York acting community?
As others have pointed out, the franchise has been hugely important to the acting community in NY, and to the rest of the city. But where as 20 year ago, L&O was pretty much the only game in town, there’s an abundance of TV production now in NY.
What do you want to do next?
Get some sleep. But I don’t think that’s in the cards.
Any final words in this eulogy to Law & Order?
Just that I’m deeply grateful to have been involved with a show that for twenty years has served as a weekly chronicle not just of the American justice system but of the world we live in, warts and all. It has, I hope, been an honest witness to our times.