Dick Wolf is bullish on his Law & Order franchise moving into the True Crime arena. He already has a list of cases he wants to probe and would “run down the street naked” to get viewers to watch the first episode of his first at-bat, about the Menendez murders.
“This is unique for me, after 27 years of Law & Order,” Wolf told TV critics at TCA today. “This is taken from the headlines; we‘ve made some great shows ripped from the headlines, but this is on a different level.”
The Dick Wolf-Rene Balcer limited series Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders will focus on the infamous case of brothers Lyle Menendez (Gaston Villanueva) and Erik Menendez (Gus Halper), rich kids who were convicted in 1996 of murdering their parents seven years earlier at their Beverly Hills home. After a mistrial and deadlocked juries — there was one trial but two separate juries, one for each brother — they were re-tried, convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.
Never-shy Wolf called it “one of the crimes of the century” and said the brothers should have been out of the slammer eight to 10 years ago because they should have been convicted of first-degree manslaughter.
Asked to elaborate, Wolf noted that the Los Angeles DA’s office had lost several high-profile cases before the Menendez brothers went on trial, including the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson cases, the latter after the brothers’ mistrial. “This DA’s office had a pretty huge chip on its shoulder and was looking for conviction by any means,” Wolf said.
Among the “mitigating circumstances,” Wolf said, the sons having been molested by their parents — information that was allowed in the first trial but not in the one in which they ultimately were convicted.
Rene Balcer, who Wolf called the best procedural writer in the business, added that there was less sympathy for molested boys 25 years ago. He argues that if it had been “Erika” instead of Erik who had killed her parents to stop their abuse, “they would not be in jail” today.
Wolf dismissed a critic’s suggestion viewers will think he’s “jumping on the bandwagon” of FX’s hit limited series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, calling it a press talking point but “not of much concern to the audience.”
“They’re going to watch if they like it,” Wolf said with characteristic bluntness. The biggest audience for crime content, fiction and non, is women. “I can’t say it’s an audience that’s underserved,” but his Menendez project is a bull’s-eye, he forecast. “It has got love, lust, lying, cheating – basically all seven deadly since in one place,” he noted happily,
One critic called Wolf a “bottomless pit of programming for NBC,” qualifying quickly, lest Wolf take offense, “I mean that in the best possible way.”
“I hope it continues,” Wolf answered, taking none.
To that point, he said he’s happy to attach the Law & Order label to this new nonfiction franchise.
“In this universe … with 450 scripted projects on television last year, if I thought it would help I would run naked through the streets, which nobody wants to see,” Wolf joked. The Law & Order brand “is part of the television landscape in a positive way. I would use anything I can to get an audience, that does not lower than level of the brand.”
It’s producers of low-budget true-crime docus who should be concerned, he argued, because “what is the [aftermarket] value of that program? Everything today is done at a deficit. … It’s a big question – and why I’m still a big fan of network televisions, because it’s not going away.”
To that point, Wolf said in the scrum after the Q&A that the True Crime iteration is “endless if you get the right cases.” His wish list includes Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz and “Night Stalker” serial killer Richard Ramirez among topics he hopes to give the L&O True Crime treatment going forward.
Wolf said he would be “very surprised” if the Law & Order mothership series were to be brought back, though it’s a “nice things to think about occasionally,” saying he prefers to “push the brand’s boundaries out further at this stage.”
And, when asked when NBC planned to air the oft-rescheduled episode of Law & Order: SVU said to have been inspired by Donald Trump, Wolf directed Deadline to NBC chief Bob Greenblatt. In the “Unstoppable” episode, written by veteran Julie Martin and showrunner Rick Eid, the Trump-esque character, played by Gary Cole, is a wealthy and boorish man who makes a run for the White House, but his plan might be thwarted by a woman who accuses him of raping her.