Law and Order and Appeasement
Dick Wolf's finest hour
Feb 12, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 21 • By MIKE MURPHY
DICK WOLF is my new hero. Wolf produces the NBC television series Law & Order. Last week he did something people in Hollywood never do. Wolf stood up against political correctness and bit the hand that feeds him.
The brouhaha arose out of a recent episode of Law & Order. The show, which fictionalizes stories lifted from New York City headlines, dealt with a group of teenage punks on a drunken rampage in Central Park. The inspiration was clearly the trouble in Central Park last year after the annual Puerto Rican Day parade.
Wolf's storyline, like the real thing, dealt with thuggish young men sexually assaulting various women. Some of the alleged offenders, both in real life and on the television show, were Hispanic. Predictably, lots of steam started hissing out from under certain professional sombreros, and a phalanx of political correctness cops sprang into action.
The National Puerto Rican Coalition demanded and got an immediate meeting with not one, but two network presidents: NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa and entertainment president Jeff Zucker. Normally Jay Leno has to go on strike or Survivor Island has to burn down for a group of network brass to frog-march to a conclave like that. During an "extremely productive meeting" with the Puerto Rican Coalition, various suppliant apologies were offered and an NBC statement was quickly released saying the network had agreed to make the offending episode disappear, Stalin-style. It would never be re-aired on television.
Normally in Hollywood, a controversy like this would result in an apology orgy, with entire orchards of designer fruit baskets being flung to and fro between network brass and neurotic show producers. But Wolf did the opposite. After seeing the NBC manifesto of apology, Wolf released his own snarling statement blasting NBC's cowardice. The network "caved into the demands of a special interest group, and I am extremely disappointed with this decision," said Wolf.
While it is common for television show runners to feud with their network clients over budgets for customized star trailers and the right to go around standards and practices to titillate audiences during sweeps week by peppering scripts with "brave" salty language or showcasing the latest advances in plastic surgery, it is rare indeed to see a fight over actual principle.
Wolf is not new to controversy. He is famous in the television production community for refusing to cater to star vanity. His shows are a throwback to the old Hollywood studio system; they are entirely story driven, so whenever a young starlet or star demands a huge salary increase, Wolf yawns and quickly replaces them. He casts his shows with reliable old workhorses from the Broadway stage who carry character parts quite well and show up for work on time. And he delivers a big audience; Law & Order is solidly in the Nielsen top twenty.
Some conservatives whine about Law & Order, just as they whine about every popular TV show. In Wolf's case the beef has to do with prior episodes that -- no surprise here -- portray violent pro-life zealots as panting, eye-bulging stereotypes. The critics have a point, but a minor one, since the few violent pro-lifers I've bumped into over the years in campaign politics are indeed panting eye-bulging extremists. In over a decade on the air, Wolf's show has made villains out of conservatives, but also out of just about everybody else. Wolf can also be a bit of a blowhard, but compared to the cartoonish West Wing (Hogan's Heroes with Republicans as the Germans), his Law & Order is an honest, equal opportunity offender.
Big TV networks of course never apologize when their shows pillory pro-lifers, Second Amendment supporters, and conservatives in general. They only fold in front of politically correct pressure groups, and they do so with shameless speed and spinelessness. Three cheers for Dick Wolf for having the courage to call them on it.
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Mike Murphy is a political and media consultant.