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‘Law & Order’ scribe reflects on new ‘Intent’

Writer/producer tells why three's a charm

Being the third born under a well-known brand name is a mixed blessing. It does guar-antee a lot of eyeballs will be tuning in to watch us take our first steps. It also guarantees an equal number of eyeballs will be rolling at the thought of yet another “Law & Order” show. But, despite the New York setting, the familiar “cha-chungs” and locale cards, “Criminal Intent” offers a very different ride to the viewer.

While the first two flavors of “L&O” owed more to the documentary genre, “Criminal Intent” owes its soul to film noir. It’s not just that we decided to forego the handheld camera work that distinguished the first “L&O” in favor of a more stylized look — the most radical departure is in the way “Criminal Intent” tells its stories.

Dick Wolf and I wanted to break from “Law & Order’s” locked point of view and tell the tale of crime from both sides of the table. Let’s see how the bad guy (or girl) connives with his (or her) accomplices, parries with the police, schemes with the lawyers. How a guy who just dismembered his wife explains her disappearance to his in-laws. We thought it might make for good drama — suspenseful, tragic, full of pathos, funny even. Most of all, we thought it’d make for ripping good yarns.

I’ve always loved the bad guy for his grandiosity, his unlimited capacity for self-deception, his all-too-human weaknesses. His life is a funhouse-mirror distortion of our own needs and desires. Bad men do what good men dream — whether it’s revenge, embezzling the company funds, clipping the wife and making off with the baby sitter, or even becoming a contestant on reality shows.

Every great crook deserves a great detective. Dick and I were weaned on Sherlock Holmes. Holmes, along with detectives Marlowe, Maigret and Imanishi, became the inspiration for our Detective Robert Goren of the NYPD’s Major Case Squad — a keen observer with a nose for a criminal’s Achilles’ heel and the skill to exploit it. That’s another departure — though Goren has his Watson in the person of the very able Detective Alexandra Eames, “Criminal Intent” is less of an ensemble piece than its predecessors.

Now this is the part where I’m supposed to gas off about the State of the Network Drama, the caveat being, due to the cyclical nature of the business, any opinion has the half-life of the foam on a Star-bucks latte.

All in all, I’m pretty san-guine about the network drama. There’s still a huge audience for it. The after-market on cable is now very profitable. The competition remains the same as ever — sitcoms, newsmagazines, reformulated television stan-dards (“Candid Camera” be-comes “Spy TV,” “The $64,000 Question” becomes “The $50,000 Buffalo Testicle”). Plus ca change. …

This summer, the networks discovered that serialized dramas don’t play very well in repeats. So count on them to a) revisit their licensing agreements, and b) develop more close-ended dramas, which is fine with me. Maybe it’s because I don’t have the atten-tion span to juggle multi-episode character arcs, but I’m happy writing hourlong stories with a beginning, middle and end. Not to mention, “L&O” owes its success in no small measure to the fact each episode is self-contained.

The networks remain as committed as ever to taking creative risks — which is to say their commitment rises and falls with the tides. Let’s not forget, it was a network that developed “The Sopranos,” it was a network that pumped millions into produc-ing and promoting “Wonderland,” it’s a network that keeps trying to find an audience for “Once and Again.” In my 10 years on “Law & Order,” the network never vetoed a story. On “Criminal Intent,” I pushed the envelope even further in terms of con-tent and frankness. Granted, I still have to come up with ever-more amusing euphemisms for “fuck,” and I still have to convey sexuality by other means than naked boobs. But if there’s no necessity, where’s the invention?

At a certain level among writer-producers, everybody watches what everybody else is doing, each one of us taking what we need to advance our own particular scrimmage line. “The Sopranos” proved that, on Sunday evenings, audiences have an appetite for heartier fare than “Touched by an Angel.” That should be good news for “Criminal Intent.”

Rene Balcer is a six-time Emmy-nominated writer and producer whose credits include “Law & Order” and “A Killing in the Family.” His new series, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” airs Sundays on NBC at 9p.m.

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