LOS ANGELES — The latest member of the "Law & Order" franchise has a familiar face playing a familiar character, but producer Dick Wolf says he's switching up the storytelling.
NBC's "Law & Order: Organized Crime" stars Christopher Meloni as New York police detective Elliot Stabler, the role he played until 2011 on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."
Unlike the largely self-contained episodes of its "Law & Order" relatives, the new drama shifts from one criminal syndicate to another in multi-episode arcs. It debuts Thursday at 10 p.m. EDT, paired in a crossover episode with "Law & Order: SVU" at 9 p.m. EDT.
Think of it this way, Wolf suggested: "If the first eight episodes are 'The Godfather,' the second eight episodes are 'American Gangster' and the third eight episodes are 'Scarface.'"
"You have major antagonists around to build a really good, longer-term story," he told The Associated Press. That allows for options "we haven't had a chance to explore yet, including antagonists that aren't complete 'black hats,' that can be more nuanced."
"Law & Order: Organized Crime" also brings a new writer-producer to the franchise's ranks, Ilene Chaiken, whose credits include the groundbreaking "The L Word," which featured LGBTQ characters, and "The Handmaid's Tale."
"I've known her by reputation for a long time," Wolf said. "Over the last 30 years there's very few truly landmark shows, but 'The L Word' is one of them."
Chaiken is "not only skilled, she's incredibly insightful about human emotion" and with a different "rhythm" than he has, Wolf said. He called that a necessity for "Organized Crime," with Meloni's Stabler among the most "pre-Miranda cops on television."
In other words, the sort of law enforcement officer who didn't like to play by the rules, such as informing a person under arrest of their rights — the sort of character that TV once routinely celebrated as heroic.
"What she had to do was keep that character intact, but soften and change him in a believable manner that got him into the present, so that's he's not a dinosaur," Wolf said. "Not an easy thing to do."
The franchise's theme music will be featured, with what he fondly calls yet another "Goldberg Variations" — a reference to Bach's 19th-century aria and its 30 iterations. The "Law & Order" tune is practically an American standard, given the original show's ubiquity in reruns and the enduring "Law & Order: SVU," now in its 22nd season with Mariska Hargitay.
The new series is just part of the expansive TV real estate Wolf's empire occupies, including NBC's "Chicago Fire" and its pair of spinoffs, and CBS' "FBI" and its about-to-be two spinoffs, with the recent announcement of "FBI: International" for next season. All are produced by Wolf Entertainment and Universal Television.
He cites Charles Dickens as inspiration for his intertwined shows, explaining how his approach compares to that of the British novelist.
"It's Dickens' London: Anybody who appears in any of the books can appear in any of the others," he said, excepting 'A Tale of Two Cities," which adds Paris to the mix. Wolf owns all the books in the format in which they were released, most in monthly sections.
"People would line up for six hours" for the next installment, he said. And, like TV and unlike films, the story could go on as long as the author and the public wanted.
"A movie exists for 110 minutes. A successful show exists for 110 hours," Wolf said.