"Law & Order" writer discusses translating reality to television

The Daily Pennsylvanian
October 22, 2008

Media Credit: Melanie Lei/DP Staff Photographer

Jonathan Greene, a co-executive producer of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, speaks about his time as a writer for the show.

Law & Order is the second longest-running primetime drama in television history, and yesterday Penn students could've killed for the chance to meet one of the writers responsible for the show's success.

Jonathan Greene, a writer and co-executive producer of the NBC television series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit was brought to the Kelly Writers House by English professor Gail Shister. The Law & Order franchise was developed by '69 alumnus Dick Wolf.

Topics ranged from how Greene continues to brainstorm innovative ideas to his feelings on the show's violent content, with many other subjects interspersed throughout.

Greene himself started his career as a broadcast journalist and spent 15 years as a radio reporter and television news producer until he became a writer and producer for Law & Order, where he has worked for nine seasons.

He explained that the biggest transition he experienced from news writer to script writer was exchanging reality for artistic license. His aim is to make information as simple and conversational as possible for the purpose of entertainment.

"The biggest liberty we take with the show - in terms of dramatic license - is time," he said. In reality, the process of gathering information and going from arrest to courthouse may take many years.

The writers look for new ideas by researching news reports and various publications, as well as by conversing with experts, such as cops. He explained that "as a writer, if you keep writing the same kind of thing, you're going to get stale," and thus it is important to research new plot lines and constantly work on character development.

Greene also mentioned that it is necessary to avoid becoming personally involved with the show's gruesome content. He claimed that he finds himself writing less about crimes involving children, for he has two himself. Instead, his focus tends to be on social issues.

On a lighter note, Greene touched upon the importance of interesting character development, including the subtle interplay of the sexual tension between Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler, the show's two primary characters. Nursing sophomore Marin Jacobwitz said, "One of the main reasons I watch the show is for their tension, so I was hoping he'd say he'd write some in."

When asked, Greene included "Doubt" and "Florida" as some of his favorite episodes, though he claimed that he actually could name about 20.

Offering advice for aspiring writers, Greene concluded by encouraging students to follow their passions, even if they take them across the country. "As soon as you graduate, just get in your car and drive to L.A.," he said.