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‘Law & Order: Crime Scenes’

New book by “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf and series photographer Jessica Burstein shares a behind-the-scenes look at the popular primetime television show. Read an excerpt here.

The “Law & Order” brand has proven to be a television powerhouse. The original “Law & Order” is in its 14th season on NBC, and repeats on cable still draw large audiences. Add to that, the success of two additional “Law & Order” series: “SVU” and “Criminal Intent,” which both regularly rank in the top 20. So, it’s not surprising that the man behind it all, Dick Wolf, would branch out once more. In this case, it’s the first official book of the franchise, called, “Law & Order: Crime Scenes,” as well as a companion DVD. Wolf discusses the book on “Today.” Here's an excerpt:

“LAW & ORDER” is the longest running drama on network television, with more than three hundred episodes and two spin-offs to its name. Over the years, it has received significant attention from newspapers, magazines, and journals. Yet this is the first official book about the show. Why, you may ask, did I choose to focus on crime scenes to translate “Law & Order” from the small screen to the printed page? The reason is simple.

Every Law & Order episode opens with a crime scene, which almost always involves a murder. But the scene is never a celebration of violence. Rather, it is a door to explore the cost and consequence of violence and the specific way that we as a society — on the concrete streets of our urban environment — wrestle with evil and try to put wrong, right.

Although America has had a long romance with violence, “Law & Order” is not romantic. It is stark, gritty, and spare. The show does not linger on a victim; the victim’s role is to introduce the dramatic conflict.

In late 1993, in the series’ third season, I approached photographer Jessica Burstein with the idea of capturing the organizing principle of “Law & Order’s” narratives, by documenting its crime scenes. I wanted, through these still images, to represent graphically what I have often described as “Law & Order’s” story: the first half is a murder mystery; the second half is a moral mystery.

Jessica began this project before she became “Law & Order’s” unit photographer and continued to focus on it for close to a decade. In the remarkable series of photographs that follow, she has fixed on paper the idea that I had in 1993. And more. Jessica’s photographs are emblematic of my initial vision for the show, which originated back in the 1980s.

“Law & Order” was born in 1988 at the nadir of the syndication market for hour dramas. The split-format structure of “Law & Order” was initially predicated on a business, not an artistic, idea. While producers incur a deficit in creating the original episodes, syndication is where the profit is made in television. It was therefore thought to be advantageous to have a product that could be sold either as a half-hour or full hour show. I was fishing for various possibilities to meet this demand and tossed around several ideas, among them, “Day & Night” and “Cops & Robbers.” But, ironically, when I hit upon “Law & Order,” I felt that I had come up with a series that would be creatively enhanced by the use of the split-format, not one that would benefit from being divided into two shows to be sold separately into the syndication market.

* * *

At the age of 10, I was captivated by the writing of Arthur Conan Doyle. I read all of the Sherlock Holmes books and realized that what really compelled me were not the characters, as popular as they were, but rather the plot and story constructions — elements that were procedural. At the time that “Law & Order” was created, procedural storytelling was almost a lost art on television. When the show first aired, although it was a critical success, the audience was hardly overwhelmed. Indeed, the television viewers were so used to “going home” with characters, they couldn’t understand why, for example, “Law & Order’s” detectives disappeared in the second part of the show. Still, I was convinced that eventually the audience would be seduced by the same procedural storytelling formula that had captivated me as a boy. And I was right.

The backbone of a procedural is its writing: the story is king and the royal guards are the writers. And it is no easy task. Everyone who has ever worked on “Law & Order” (as well as its spin-offs) comes to know that nothing is more highly valued than “no fat” writing — writing that tells the story in which each scene flows into the next with the inevitability of falling dominoes. There are no establishing shots, no drive-ups, no walking up to a front door. Unlike most hour-long dramas, which average twenty-six scenes per episode, “Law & Order” averages a staggering forty. Because the substance of each story is dictated by this tightly structured, highly paced formula, for the writers, there is no room to hide. In essence, they have to create a self-contained episode, quickly getting in and getting out, yet clearly communicating the intricacies of the plot.

“Law & Order’s” stories are believable and immediate. They’re based on real crimes, “ripped from the headlines,” and are rooted in a real city — New York — whose streets and skyline have become as familiar to viewers as the show’s police and prosecutors. Conceptually, it was always my intent that “Law & Order” tackle difficult and provocative subject matter — which has at times led to problems such as sponsor pullouts and ongoing threats to boycott the show by various angered interest groups. I wanted “Law & Order’s” stories to reflect the fact that actions have consequences — although there are not always easy answers nor clear-cut resolutions; that good, sometimes, but not always, triumphs against evil; that justice is not always blind; that in life, there are no guarantees. Moreover, because conflict is at the core of great drama, I wanted the show’s characters to represent varying points of views. In essence, I consciously set out to push the confines of dramatic television.

* * *

The photographs in this book capture this aesthetic principle of the show. A careful viewer subliminally recognizes the fact that “Law & Order” is the most desaturated show on network television. In layman’s terms, this means that in the final stage of post-production, most of the color is pulled out of the picture, leaving a “cooler” color temperature. Thus, it feels somewhat more like a documentary, subtly blending illusion and reality. It might be described as trompe l’oeil or, to cineastes, as cinema verité.

Of course, humans live and die in color, but, when we think of crime and punishment, we want a justice system that is sharp, unsparing, and unsentimental about evil as well as clear and crisp about righting it-that is, a world of black and white. By freezing the moving color image in black and white, these pictures give us precisely that.

Ultimately, the show must locate itself in the gray area of real existence. To accomplish this, I have relied on a group of gifted writers, actors, producers, and crew members. Presenting these photographs, therefore, has not only given me an occasion to introduce the reader to the process of creating “Law & Order” itself, but also to pay tribute to the extraordinary team behind the series.

In August 1990, I went to Brandon Tartikoff, the head of programming at NBC, and requested that “Law & Order” be broadcast in black and white. Brandon just smiled and said that he’d be happy to put a “super” on the screen saying that if you wanted to see “Law & Order” in black and white, turn your color knob all the way to the left. It has been many years, but, here, finally, is the way “Law & Order” was meant to be seen. In black and white.

Excerpts from the introduction to “Law & Order: Crime Scenes.” Copyright 2003 by Dick Wolf. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Barnes & Noble Books.