This month, Slate is republishing some of our favorite stories. Here's today's selection: In 1996, Michael Kinsley famously moved from Washington, D.C.’s political swamp to the salmon-spawning grounds of the Puget Sound to edit Microsoft’s first general interest Web magazine, the publication you’re reading now. His more or less weekly column, Readme, was a wonderfully unpredictable mix of political commentary, gentle ribbing of Microsoft executives, instructions on how to download Slate on Paper, and charming demonstrations of his inimitable humor. The last is on display in his 2002 column, “The Secret Vice of Power Women,” in which Kinsley shared what his recent marriage had taught him about female tastes in television.—June Thomas
(Note: In the marital relations system, the people are represented by two separate but equally important groups: the wives who watch Law & Order obsessively, and the husbands who don't. This is their story. Ka-chunk.)
Recently I got married, fairly late in life for that sort of thing, and have made astonishing discoveries. Most of these revelations turn out to be common knowledge. But one, I believe, has not been widely aired.
People's Exhibit A (my wife), Your Honor, is a formidable, intelligent woman with an important and challenging job and a full private life. (Also undeniable loveliness and charm, which are not strictly relevant to the present case.) She doesn't squander her time. And yet she spends many hours a week watching reruns of Law & Order—often back-to-back (the shows, that is).
It would be misleading to call her a fan. Law & Order, the long-running crime drama, is not just one of her favorite TV shows, or even her very favorite. Other than reruns of Law & Order, she has almost no interest in television at all. Specifically, she has no interest in any of the (to me) barely distinguishable Law & Order spinoffs and rip-offs (such as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Double-Entry Bookkeeping, CSI, CSI: Miami, Mayberry R.F.D. and so on.) She's not even interested in new episodes of Law & Order itself. She couldn't tell you what night it's on and has no view about what this country is coming to when a man like Fred Thompson can be plucked from the obscurity of the United States Senate and entrusted with the responsibility of running the prosecutor's office on Law & Order.
Nor does she care—or even, possibly, notice—whether it is Michael Moriarty or Sam Waterston who is being unvarnished in any episode she may be watching. Don't ask her whether the female assistant district attorney is the blonde or one of the brunettes. Don't attempt to amuse her by predicting what demographic category the judge will be from. ("They've had four black women in a row, so I'm thinking white man. No, I know, that's ridiculous, so I'll go with white woman—but in a wheelchair. Whaddya think, Honey? Honey?? Ouch, that hurt. OK, never mind.")
Exhibit A and I assumed that this was our little secret. Perhaps it had to do with our weather here in Seattle, which affects some people oddly. Or too much coffee. But then we had a visitor from the East Coast who announced that his wife was about to become the TV critic of a major newspaper. "And the amazing thing," he added, "is that she never watches TV except for reruns of Law & Order."
Good grief. I began making discreet inquiries. My closest chum in Washington is a political columnist and TV pundit. I thought I knew her pretty well. Turns out that for years, on all those evenings when I assumed she was at parties to which I wasn't invited, she was at home watching reruns of Law & Order. The dean of a major business school poured out a similar confession, as did a senior editor at a newsmagazine. The girlfriend of one of my Slate colleagues. Half the women at the University of Texas (according to another Slate colleague, who may be exaggerating). Another Washingtonian, this one a teacher, though her husband says she is "drifting back to C-SPAN." Always women. Always high-powered. Always Law & Order. Always reruns. What on earth is going on?
It is not a cult, because a cult is communal. Sex and the City has a cult following: Women, especially, watch it together and/or discuss it the next day at work. New episodes are considered, on balance, a good thing. The obsession with Law & Order is something different. Far from discussing it with one another, women seem to watch it alone and may be unaware that anyone else shares the habit.
Exhibit A may be an extreme case. In a rare glimpse into this secret world, Molly Haskell wrote an essay last April for a local section of the New York Times in which she frankly and courageously labeled herself a Law & Order addict. But she claimed to discuss the show freely with other addicts. She also described her addiction as an essentially New York phenomenon, which suggests that even Haskell does not appreciate the full extent of the situation.
This would all be merely curious except for one ominous recent development. Law & Order reruns used to be scattered across the cable schedule like wildflowers. (Or weeds.) To catch them all, you needed to be able to play the remote control like Paderewski. More important, you had to control the remote control. Under these circumstances, only the smarter and more high-powered women were able to indulge this temptation. Now, though, TNT cable has exclusive rights to Law & Order reruns and, near as I can tell, runs them more or less all the time. That means Law & Order addiction is now available to all women with access to even basic cable.
This presumably is just the kind of chic new social problem the Democrats are being advised to rebuild their party around, now that George W. Bush has solved all the old ones. The new Democratic leader in Congress, Nancy Pelosi, is just the kind of dynamic, smart, take-charge person who can …
Uh-oh. Do you suppose …?
Dick Wolf is no stranger to ripping from the headlines. In the nearly 26 years since Law & Order debuted, the Emmy winner has looked to real-life cases for countless episodes of the flagship as well as its spinoff series, in addition to the Chicago universe that now takes up major real estate on NBC's schedule.
However, the prolific TV producer still turned heads earlier this year when it was announced that he was developing a true-crime anthology series for which the first season will focus on the Menendez brothers. After years of stuffing long, drawn-out investigations and trials into 42-minute episodes, Wolf and writer Rene Balcer will examine the Menendez case, in which brothers Erik and Lyle were found guilty in 1994 of murdering their parents in 1989, over eight hours. (Put into development in April, the project was picked up to series earlier this month.)
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Wolf about the inspiration behind the True Crime series, why he picked the Menendez brothers and why he's not afraid of true-crime fatigue.
You've done ripped-from-the-headlines cases before, but what made you want to explore it in a longer format?
You want me to completely candid? [The People v. O.J. Simpson] was like, 'Oh, this is a good idea!' (Laughs.) Because we did a version of Menendez, of the boys in 1992, like in the third season of Law & Order, so it's something that has really interested me since it happened.
Why this case? I'm sure you've read tons of murder cases before.
The whole concept of what drove them to do it is the most … are they telling the truth? Were they molested? What was the level? How long did it go on? How oppressive was it? What did the mother know? I mean, come on.
What other cases did you look at before you picked this one?
There are other cases that, if it works, I know we're going to be doing in the future.
Why was Rene Balcer the right person to come on board this and write?
This is an enormous case. There were two hung juries and a trial, and there is nobody better at writing complicated legal procedurals than Rene. He's been doing it time after time after time for years and years and years, and this is a hugely complicated case.
What was behind your decision to frame it within the Law & Order franchise as opposed to just calling True Crime?
First of all, it's a huge legal procedural. Look, I learned the lesson when we did the movie which started all the branding, which was Exiled. It was the highest-rated movie of the year. Barry Diller said, 'I don't know who's going to watch this. Why don't you call it Law & Order?' When it did the numbers it did, it was the highest-rated movie of the year, and I don't think it was because it was called Exiled. (Laughs.)
Will it have any elements from the original? Will there be a theme or an opening?
[Original series composer] Mike Post is going to write another variation.
Obviously, true crime is a hot trend right now. TNT is working on a Chandra Levy miniseries, FX has season two of American Crime Story. How concerned are you with viewers getting burnt out on these kinds of shows?
I never worry about it because I think that there is an endless appetite for stuff that's really well done. If it's not really well done, yeah, I think you can go, 'Oh, please, I've got to watch six more hours of this?' But if it gets you — and O.J. got me and I know that story really well, because it was told differently.
What is the timetable for the project? When could this premiere?
Rene is up in the Arctic Circle working on his own show [The Council, which will debut on Canada’s CBC in fall 2017], so I think he'll really start working next month or something. I'd love it to get on in the second quarter of next year … but it's tough. It's eight hours.