Building an "Empire"
An Interview with Special Victims Unit Executive Producer Robert Palm
By Kitteridge
A few words of caution: Robert Palm is jet-lagged. Also, when he spoke for this interview, it was way back in May of 1999, prior to the debut of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the show he currently shares a credit with Dick Wolf for writing, and which he now executive produces. So in all likelihood, Palm is nowhere near as manic as he may seem here.
That's a good thing, because clearly Palm is a mad genius, jet-lagged or not. The former magazine writer (TV Guide) turned Law & Order scribe has been responsible for some of L&O's most memorable early episodes: "Subterranean Homeboy Blues," "Indifference," "Mushrooms," "The Troubles," "Confession," "Asylum," "Heaven," "Sisters of Mercy" and "The Working Stiff" comprise the first part of his Law & Order career. When he left the show, he moved to other writing projects, including penning teleplays for American Gothic and a little-seen, now vanished 1997 show called Total Security, which the Internet Movie Database calls an "anti-Rockford Files" and which had a description that David E. Kelley seems to have cribbed for his  equally-doomed Snoops.
The thing is that even mad geniuses have their bad days, and Palm's return to Law & Order with the alarmingly-bad 200th episode, "Empire," was one of them. Although he wouldn't give details about the episode for this interview, which was done prior to the show's airing, he does lend some interesting insights into where the show had its genesis (thank People magazine and the ghost of Michael Moriarty). It remains to be seen if Special Victims Unit is going to be another Palm Folly or not -- but his penchant for the personal detail (which led to his leaving L&O in the first place), so well reined in at L&O, has now been let out of the box. If SVU survives, it will be for different reasons than why Law & Order continues to thrive. And those differences are as clear as Balcer versus Palm.
 
Do you find it amazing that Law & Order's really been on the air for nearly 10 years?
Absolutely. I never thought it would get there myself. I was involved for the first and second seasons, with [writer] David Black and all of them.
How is now different from back then?
I should tell you that I wrote this 200th episode [Empire] as the guest "old boy," so I have had no experience on the show since I left.
Before writing the 200th episode, did you watch a lot of recent episodes, to get caught up to date?
To be honest with you, I had a pilot which was due at the same time, and I meant to catch up, and I didn't have the time.
You weren't writing for the series at all after the second season?
No. But I was writing [Empire] and I remember saying, 'The tall cop, Brisket...' And they'd say to me, 'Hey, Palm, try and get here and we'll give you a little crib sheet for the names.' That's a key stroke. No, the reason I didn't stay with it for too long is I'm much more character-driven and it became --I think it's a wonderful show, it was great in the beginning, it's great now, it was great in the middle, but for me I wanted to explore more charactery stuff. Which I think I'm going to be able to do in the Law & Order franchise, whatever Dick is calling it.
The Sex Crimes thing?
Yeah, which is much more character-oriented. It has a lot of, at least the pilot I read that Dick wrote, which I think is wonderful -- it has that procedural stuff. There was a beauty in writing the show, even the 200th episode, the guest artist in residence, or whatever, where you flip the cards, once you get the story worked out, which I did with Rene Balcer. And there's a kind of Orwellian freedom in that really tight structure.  Ultimately, I don't think I could do it year after year, it would make me crazy. I went on to do other stuff, that's all. I have to say, and I don't mean this to sound self-aggrandizing, but the first couple of years there was a lot of character stuff in-between the lines, and in the really good episodes are the ones that hit you in the gut, and I was always more interested in that than the procedural stuff.
Do you have a favorite episode from the early years that you wrote?
"Indifference." That was the second episode I wrote for the show. The first was "Subterranean Homeboy Blues," which was Bernhard Goetz as a woman thing. And that's what I loved about this show, when Dick said we're going to rip the headlines, but then flip them around and change them -- that was what was really exciting about it. I used to be a reporter, and I'm also very facile and glib, so it was really interesting -- you take Bernhard Goetz and make him a woman and there's a whole different dynamic. So that was the fun of the show then.
And then with "Indifference," you were able to take the Lisa Steinberg case....
What happened with that --Dick did the pilot for CBS, and they didn't pick it up, and then NBC gave him an order for five scripts, and I wrote two of the five, and I think David [Black] wrote one, and so we were sort of writing in a vacuum. We were writing off the pilot, but Dick said, "Let's do that, here's Bernhard Goetz as a woman, let's do the Steinberg case." I think since we didn't know any better we were a lot bolder than we would have been if we were smarter.
It's a show that doesn't really deal much in canon or character development, but you had scripts where it got worked in pretty strongly.
Well, for me I think those are the best ones. I did one called "Mushrooms"--
Oh, yeah, the baby got shot.
[Laughs] The baby got shot, yeah. That came out of my-then wife was pregnant with our first child, and there was a slew of kids being hit by bullets, like two a day, it was like staggering. Now we're almost used to it, unfortunately. But I think the best ones came out of some real emotional thing, and then you kind of did the Law & Order haiku job within the procedural stuff. So it was great to me for a couple of years, and I wrote pilots for Dick and with Dick and then without Dick and kind of have been wandering around through lucrative pilot limboland, although I did a couple of other shows after that. So the 200th, to get back to that....
Is the 200th going to be a return to the style of the first few seasons, or more like the way the show is written today?
They asked me if I wanted to do it, and Dick wanted me to come back into the fold, and I thought, what do I need another episode for, and I had this pilot that was due. And the actual reason I did it, when Rene called me and said look, it'll be fun, and they're going to promote it, and it'll be a big deal. And I said "I'll do it on one condition, Rene." "What's that?" And I said, "you'll have to put my mother in a crowd scene." And I'm serious -- my mother is so insane about Law & Order. Both of my parents. Well, my dad passed away a couple of years ago, but they were -- I was [writing for] a show called American Gothic, and I did it with Sam Rami and Shaun Cassidy. We had a blast, but it was kind of an interesting mess, which deserved to keep going, and deserved to last more than one year. My father saw ten seconds of one of the episodes and said, "I hate this shit," and for two weeks we were up against Law & Order, head to head, and so my mother said to my father who was then dying of cancer she said, "Oh, come on, Charlie, let's watch the new show until Bobby's name comes up and then we'll switch to Law & Order, and he already had the remote control in his hand, and he goes, "What the hell for? I already know his name!" Click, over to Law & Order. And they call me and say "Hey, we hear Michael Moriarty is leaving the show! We read it in the Hartford Current!" And I go, "Yeah, I guess mom, I've been off the show for five years." So it was really nice going back, and the people were really great in New York, and [East Coast Executive Producer/Director] Ed Sherin told me on the phone -- he said all right, this is great, it's a borderline parody.
The 200th script?
Not the script, the writing of it. I'm a smartass, and it was funny. It had some -- it was funny. It was fun to kind of -- I had nothing to lose. I was not trying to get a job on the show, and I obviously had and have respect for the show or I wouldn't have done it in the first place, with or without my mother, but I watched a couple of the recent episodes and I just let it rip. I think it came out pretty well.
What can you tell us about it?
I don't know what "they," whoever they are, want me to say. I don't know if I should talk about it.
You know about the big stunt casting, right?
Julia Roberts, right?
Yeah, that one. I just went by the set, we were leaving for Italy, and I went to New York for a couple of days to see my mom [on the set], and it was St. Patrick's Day and they made her take off her bright green shirt because it would clash. A trip. Anyhow, there was this guy -- there were a couple of actors there I recognized.
Old cast members returning? I'd heard no one was coming back.
I think there were, actually. I'm so jet-lagged I can hardly think straight. It's about greed, it's about --  like the best Law & Orders it's about something, about overweening ambition, which is very New York, it's about mortality and immortality and betrayal, all of that kind of stuff that sounds high-hat, but it's good.
So old cast members are coming back?
God, who comes back? Somebody -- no, no, at one point, when I first went in to meet with Dick Wolf and Rene about this, a couple months ago, I had just seen Julia Roberts and Ben Bratt on the cover of, or in People magazine while I was in the dentist's office. So I went in to this meeting and said, "I got it, I got it, Dick: Michael Moriarty comes back and she's his love child!" We always used to make a joke in the first couple of seasons, because somebody had written in where the Stone character had a daughter in a little picture on his desk, which was never on camera, but maybe she was on camera, and there was so little character, and no bios, and we'd go "What about the kid!" yelling down the hall: "No kid!" Well, yeah, he's got a kid, so whatever.
And we always used to say "This is not Cagney and Lacey," we don't give a shit about little Benjy's homework, or whoever that kid was, it's really dry and it's really tough and it was, it was great that way. Does this make any sense? You can fill in the ellipses for me. So [I'm saying] "Ben Stone comes back and his now-grown up daughter Julia Roberts, has repressed memory syndrome..." and Dick got this look in his eyes, and I said, "Dick, I'm kidding!" I could see him, and sure enough no, [Roberts] loves the show, and if you write a part for a woman who's a real femme fatale, those were really my marching orders, and Viagra and whatever. So it was fun. Rene and I did the story together. He's much more procedural and logical than I am, so I got to be the smartass character guy, and we put the story together.
Are you as proud of this one as you were of the earlier ones?
It was a really good experience. I haven't seen dailies or anything, I've been in Italy, but it's a really good script, they sent me the final version. But it's good, and I'm looking forward to it.
Are they really going to call the new series Sex Crimes?
You should lobby Dick to stop it. I told him, "Dick, I think that's a real mistake, people who are expecting sex are going to be bitterly disappointed and people who are turned off aren't going to watch it." And he said, "It's going to be a Law & Order Series: Sex Crimes. And I wasn't interested in all for that reason, not because I'm a prude, but the pilot he wrote is so good, and the subject matter is really, really tough, but it's handled with real grace. When I saw Dick at Elaine's [for the 200th episode party], I said I was really surprised. It's handled really well, it covers all the good ambitious gray shit Law & Order has and had and still exhibits.


whaddya think?