Things are pretty dicey over at "Law & Order," NBC's 16-year-old police series.
For one thing, the actress who plays the assistant district attorney just quit. For another, insiders from the show are "convinced" that their beloved employment is about to be terminated.
"They're either getting cancelled or getting a one-year renewal," a source said.
One of the many reasons is lower ratings, thanks to being up against ABC's powerhouse "Lost" on Wednesdays in the 9 p.m. timeslot. In recent weeks, NBC finally moved "Law & Order" out of harm's way, to 10 p.m., but it may too little, too late.
There are, of course, three "Law & Order" shows: the mothership (as it is known), "SVU" (or fondly, SUV) and "Criminal Intent." The latter are still doing well enough that their pick-up seems assured.
Nevertheless, there's been trouble at "Criminal Intent" this week. S. Epatha Mekerson, the Emmy-winning actress who appears on the main show, was written in and then written out of the final episode when she didn't like the way her character was being treated.
"Whoopi Goldberg is the guest star. She plays a con man. Epatha's character was supposed to be her old friend. But Epatha didn't like it that her character was clueless about how evil Whoopi's was," a source said.
To make matters even more complicated, sources tell me that Annie Parisse, the talented brunette who had been playing the assistant district attorney on the main show, has quit.
"She saw the writing on the wall," an insider said. "They never treated her very well. They were always complaining about her hair. And they also thought she looked too young next to Sam Waterson."
Parisse joins a long list of actresses who have played the assistant district attorney over 15 seasons, including Jill Hennessey, Angie Harmon, Carey Lowell and Elizabeth Rohm (who discovered her character was a lesbian in her final scene).
The problem now is that creator and executive producer Dick Wolf can't cast a replacement because no one knows if the show is coming back.
There's a significant morale problem, too. Sources say that there have been "a lot" of firings, including a portion of the camera crew.
"None of the original writer-producers are there anymore," a source said. "They've all been replaced by people from L.A. who don't get the show."
And then there's the issue of Jerry Orbach. Everyone I spoke to said the same thing in one way or another: Without the late beloved actor, "Law & Order" isn't the same. "And people don't like Dennis Farina" is the comment I got about the actor who was hired to succeed Orbach even before he died.
If "Law & Order" does get cancelled, or renewed just long enough to do a finale season, it won't be a tremendous surprise. Sixteen years, after all, is twice the length of the run of a regular hit show. Still, insiders blame the constant reruns on TNT for over-saturating the brand.
"Even they're cutting back now," a source said.
And then there were the problems with the show's lead-ins. All three forgettable shows are already gone, as well.
But that doesn't mean we won't be seeing the other two "Law & Order" shows in syndication for years to come.
"The 'CI' deal was too rich," a source said. "It will be on NBC for one or two more seasons definitely."
NBC declined comment except to say: "It is the producers' desire to keep the season finale of 'Law and Order' under wraps because of some surprising developments."
Michael Jackson recording with 50 Cent? No, but some news outlets fell for a hoax e-mail on Sunday from "Two Seas Records" that claimed such a thing and more.
The clever author used a Sony Los Angeles fax number for a phone number, and threw around lots of info already available. Too bad 99 percent of it isn't true.
It was Dominic Chianese's turn to shine at the Cutting Room Monday night. He filled the West 24th St. hotspot with loyal fans who came to hear his cabaret act. Yes, Uncle Junior from "The Sopranos" is a song man from way back, and he was a delight performing old Italian folk songs and more contemporary material by Carole King and by Kris Kristofferson.
Dominic also did a number from "Oliver!" which he was in on Broadway some 40 years ago. In the audience: our old pal ex-news anchor John Roland and actor Federico Castellucci (Furio from "The Sopranos," who told me he has gotten a big commission down in Boca Raton to paint a mural).
So what's next for Uncle Junior?
"I can't tell you," Dominic sighed as he signed autographs. "But you'll see me soon."
I hope so.
Philip Haas' excellent new film "The Situation" may be headed to the Venice Film Festival for its premiere in August. Haas directed the great "Angels and Insects," among others.
I hear "Good Morning America" isn't too happy with Tom Cruise. ABC had a deal with Cruise for all his "Mission: Impossible 3" flackery, but the "Today" show snuck in an interview the other day via its syndicated NBC cousin, "Access Hollywood." Now everyone has scripted interviews!
But at least "Access" wasn't left out in the cold. Good for them, I say.