Producer revamps 'Law & Order'

Sunday, May 26, 2002

NEW YORK -- When "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" filmed a tale of murder, a Catholic priest and sexual abuse, it was set to air in the fall.

But with a real-life scandal in the priesthood heating up, the show made a last-minute change. The episode wrapped up the NBC series' third season.

This should serve as a reminder how the "Law & Order" trio of New York-based police dramas scramble to keep pace with the headlines that inspire them.

Of course, topicality has always helped explain the appeal of the first-born, "Law & Order," now 12 seasons young. "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," starring Vincent D'Onofrio as a detective with a Sherlock Holmes flair, has scored in its first year by similarly mining the news.

But even as the ratings for "SVU" have flourished (15th-ranked in households) and while its best episodes rival those of any crime drama, including its "Law & Order" siblings, this middle child remains something of a black sheep.

Why? Maybe, in its first season, by being too faithful to its pre-launch working title, "Sex Crimes."

"SVU" premiered in fall 1999 declaring "sexually based offenses" to be "especially heinous" and thus the province of an "elite squad" (currently played by Christopher Meloni, Mariska Hargitay, Richard Belzer, Ice-T and Dann Florek).

Ratings were good but the show acquired a tabloidy stigma, so much so that when Neal Baer took over as executive producer after that first year, "my wife said, 'Sleazy sex crimes! I hate that show!"'

Now, two years later, "there's still a perception that it's salacious, a 'women's panties' show," he adds with a sigh.

Baer, who turns 43 next month, arrived at "SVU" with changes in mind and an overflowing resume.

"SVU" creator Dick Wolf was ready to make a change, too: His show "had problems" after its first season.

"I wasn't knocked out with some of the scripts," says Wolf, "the back office needed an overhaul and we were looking for a new show runner."

Baer was game -- and deadset on scrapping the show's Sex Crime of the Week routine.

"The first thing I tried to do was make the show about the psychological underpinnings of the crimes," says Baer, who, with his round face, wire-rim glasses and tousled graying hair, has the air of someone used to diagnosing problems.

To keep his audience guessing, Baer has resisted any single formula, jumping from week to week among at least three kinds of storytelling, which, in his lingo, are: Twisty-turny, Personal (which tracks the secondary impact of the crime on those who investigate it) and Social Issues (example: the last episode).

He has also made a practice of casting notable actors in against-the-grain guest roles.

Recently Henry Winkler played a mild-mannered con artist who murdered his wife. Mary Steenburgen was the cold-blooded mother of a heroin addict.

"Dick keeps saying, 'I don't want to make it look like "Love Boat," ' " Baer says with a laugh.

Based in Los Angeles, Baer makes regular hops to New York, where filming occurs.

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