Dick Wolf is at it again.
The powerful producer last week abruptly wrote out one Law & Order character - Assistant District Attorney Serena Southerlyn (Elisabeth Rohm) - and tonight will write in another, Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Borgia (Annie Parisse).
As fans of the 15- year-old NBC series know, such turnover is nothing new; after all, he's done it 14 times before. As Wolf once said: "The play's the thing - the writing is what matters most - and every actor who comes to the show knows it."
Not every actor. The late Jerry Orbach was - and Sam Waterston probably is - irreplaceable. Beyond that, the parts of Law & Order are definitely interchangeable.
Parisse is a slightly better actress than Rohm. Still, Parisse is nowhere near ready to go toe-to-toe with Waterston in a scene. Like that of Rohm's, her character seems to disappear whenever she and Waterston's Jack McCoy share the screen.
But as happy as some may have been to see Rohm replaced, the bizarre way that Wolf and his writers chose to say goodbye has at least some viewers still buzzing. In the final minutes of last week's episode, Rohm's character, Southerlyn, was called into the office of District Attorney Arthur Branch (Fred Thompson) and, after what seemed to be a performance review, was fired.
Southerlyn's shocked response was: "You're not firing me because I'm a lesbian?"
"No, no," Branch said.
"Good, good," the character said sounding dazed.
Then the final credits rolled.
"A lot of people were really surprised, and a lot of lesbian women were shocked; the comment about being gay seemed to come out of nowhere," said Sarah Warn, founder and editor of AfterEllen.com, a Web site that reviews media depictions of lesbian and bisexual women.
AfterEllen has been running a poll since Thursday asking viewers if they were surprised to learn that "Southerlyn is gay." Of the 798 respondents, 72 percent have said yes, while 28 percent said no.
"I think many people in the poll felt like it was a last-minute, cheap stunt that the writers thought up the night before - not something that they have been building up to for four years with the character," Warn said yesterday.
Cheap in the way it exploits the commitment made by viewers of a quality drama like Law & Order to the characters, even the thinly drawn ones like Southerlyn. You don't ask someone to care about characters, and then cavalierly kiss them off. This is especially true in Law & Order, which offers few details of the characters' personal lives, inviting - perhaps even demanding - that fans use their imaginations to construct lives outside the precinct house and district attorney's office.
Producers and writers face a further responsibility with characters representing minority populations - particularly groups as historically stereotyped as gays have been in TV.
"The fact that her gayness gets mentioned as a possible reason for her firing, but not as a reason for her life or integral part of the narrative, is representative of the way television can have its cake and eat it, too, when it comes to gay characters," said Suzanna Walters, author of All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America. "TV looks like it's being inclusive by having a gay character, but she's not really integrated, because we never got to know her as a gay person."
Wolf was not available for comment yesterday.
Yet for all the criticism of the episode sounded in her poll, Warn said that ultimately the Southerlyn character has not been irreparably damaged for viewers.
"Whatever your opinion of Serena Southerlyn and her outing, she is still a confidant, assertive character with a successful career (her recent firing notwithstanding) who has been watched by millions of Americans for four years," Warn writes on AfterEllen.
"She may not be the warmest woman on the planet, but Southerlyn is certainly not an overwhelmingly negative portrayal of a lesbian. ... She also gives the endless Law & Order reruns on TV - and the 14th season, which is now available on DVD - a whole new appeal for lesbian viewers."