After working as a crime reporter in Montreal, Canada, René Balcer landed a television gig in 1990 writing for a new police drama created by the Hollywood screenwriter Dick Wolf. It was supposed to be NBC’s next big hit, but that show, “Nasty Boys,” was canceled in midseason. Balcer went on to write for Wolf’s otherpilot, an underdog series called “Law & Order” that was gaining critical attention. Unlike such popular dramas as “L.A. Law” and “Hill Street Blues,” the show focused on the criminal proceedings rather than on the cops’ and lawyers’ personal lives. Shot with hand-held cameras, “Law & Order” also had a gritty style that looked like nothing else on network television at the time. Last September, “Law & Order” began its 20th season, tying with “Gunsmoke” for the longest-running prime-time drama in American history.
In this conversation, Mr. Balcer, now the show’s executive writer and producer, talks about the drama’s ability to remain topical as it draws from headlines and debates relating to terrorism, torture and abortion that were unimaginable 20 years ago.
How did your earlier career in reporting affect your television writing and producing?
It gave me an appreciation of what detectives see on the ground, the kind of decisions they have to make, how they get sensitized and desensitized to the violence they encounter. Detectives see people at their worst moment in life; that colors their perspective. But good detectives can talk to anybody, be it a drunk on the sidewalk or a bank president, and make that person feel he is their best friend.
“Law & Order” is often advertised as “ripped from the headlines.” What is the process behind fleshing out a news story into a teleplay?
We take the headline and use it as a jumping-off point from which we tell an entirely different story. We focus on what kind of issues the story raises and what it says about human nature.
A recent episode drew from an attempted bombing of a Jewish center in Riverdale, N.Y., in May 2009, in which a police informant gave plotters a fake explosive substance and the New York Police Department apprehended them. How did you use this as a jumping-off point?
One of the problems with terrorist investigations is the police’s reliance on informants. It’s difficult for undercover cops to infiltrate terrorist cells because the cells deal only with people they know. This is a problem not just for New York and the United States but also for international terrorist investigations. Getting inside Al Qaeda is impossible unless you start working with someone who is already in it. It’s dicey when you’re relying on civilian informants, who had been active plotters and have now decided to cooperate.
The case of the attempted Riverdale bombing is about terrorism, but we built the episode around the informant. This character became interesting in the context of his personal dilemma, as well as the compromises he had to make to maintain his credibility with the friends he’s informing on and with the police. A lot of informants used in terrorist investigations are recent immigrants, and the police have no choice but to work with what they’ve got.
Detective Cyrus Lupo, played by Jeremy Sisto, was formerly a member of the N.Y.P.D. Intelligence Division, which investigates terrorist cells abroad. What was the inspiration for this character?
The N.Y.P.D. maintains around 70 detectives who are posted overseas for two to four years. These detectives do not have authority to carry a weapon or make arrests; they interact with local police to get advance information, such as terrorist and suicide-bombing methods, that would be useful to the N.Y.P.D.’s investigations back home. These detectives are also sent to gather intelligence on possible terrorist plots in New York City. In fact, a number of detectives were stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq back in 2001 and 2002, conducting and assisting in interrogations of detainees. The program started right after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and the division has been very effective, sometimes more effective than the F.B.I. or the C.I.A., in collecting information overseas.
That’s what Detective Lupo did prior to joining the precinct on “Law & Order.” It gives him a different perspective on his job, on the city, on America. He has a more worldly view of things than other characters we have seen on the show. I’ve always loved Lord Jim types; he’s a very romantic character.
In this season’s premiere, the Manhattan district attorney, Jack McCoy, played by Sam Waterston, prosecuted a former Justice Depart-ment attorney for “depraved indifference murder” because the interrogation techniques he sanctioned in a memo, drafted in New York City, led to the death of an Abu Ghraib prisoner. What was the reaction to the premise?
Salon.com and Huffington Post loved it. Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly hated it. They thought this was René Balcer’s liberal fantasy. How dare the show take the Bush administration to task, they suggested, and what’s wrong with torture anyway? The fact is that in a 2002 memo, before he was attorney general, Alberto Gonzales wrote that one of his real concerns was that a local district attorney might prosecute a member of the administration for torture. He envisioned the possibility. I know some localities—Berkeley, for example—are looking into how they can assert such jurisdiction. So it’s not so far-fetched.
How are real crime scenes different from those portrayed on television?
You can show as much blood and guts as you want, but what you can’t show is the smell of blood and charred flesh.
In an interview with NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Dick Wolf called the first half of the show a murder mystery and the second half a moral mystery. Why a “moral mystery,” and not just a “legal mystery?”
In the second half, you dig into questions about the administration of justice: Should we prosecute? What is the measure of justice here? Should we make a deal? What are the different levels of culpability and liability? As these questions get answered, the fundamental issues arise.
A recent episode, for example, was based on the shooting of George Tiller, a doctor who performed late-term abortions. The real trial had not yet occurred, but on the show there is a justification defense: The defendant shot the doctor in order to prevent him from performing a late-term abortion. So the doctor was killed in defense of a particular life.
The show’s trial explores different aspects of the abortion debate. The defense invites testimony from a woman who had discussed on television her decision to take her pregnancy to term, rather than do a late-term abortion, even though her child would be born missing half her brain and would not live more than a day. The defense argued that the defendant had seen this woman’s story, [and that it] affected his thinking about abortion [and motivated him to murder the doctor]. During the courtroom testimony, the woman explains that, though her child died in her arms, this was her way of respecting the child’s dignity. The witness makes clear, however, that she is not anti-abortion, that it was just the right decision to make. After hearing this testimony, the assistant district attorney, Connie Rubirosa, suddenly rethinks her take-no-prisoners pro-choice position. She is now asking where…my privacy ends and where another life’s dignity begins.
In terms of the “moral mystery” in the second half, we are re-evaluating Roe v. Wade and the assumptions that buttressed it 35 years ago. For example, certain birth defects were death sentences then, but now in many cases medical advancements can offer a quality of life not previously available. Now we have a bill of rights for disabled Americans. How does that affect fetuses with disabilities? Aren’t their rights protected? A lot of the ground rules have changed.
So is Roe v. Wade a decision to be revisited? Should it be put back to the states to decide? Should the viability of a fetus outside the uterus, which is usually at 22 weeks, become a factor as far as abortion on demand is a defensible position?
There have been a number of Catholic characters over the years on “Law & Order,” and certain archetypes have emerged. Jack McCoy is lapsed but with righteous moral convictions; Detective Mike Logan was a cynic, having been sexually abused by a parish priest; Detective Rey Curtis was devout. What unites these characters? Do they all have savior complexes?
(Laughs.) I suppose all these characters have that social activist side to Catholicism, the kind of activism that Pope John Paul II hated and that led him to suspend that Nicaraguan priest [Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann for his involvement in the Sandinista National Liberation Front]. I think the belief in public and community service is the common ground where these characters would meet.