The ”ripped from the headlines” cop/courtroom franchise lost its flagship series this spring after twenty seasons. However, its first-born child, sex crime drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, is still creeping people out in its second decade, while spin-off #3, L&O: Criminal Intent, has also had a respectable run. (Sure, there was the ill-fated L&O: Trial by Jury, but even Dick Wolf can’t win em all.) Across the Atlantic, there’s even L&O: UK, but in this hemisphere, the Law & Order brand is synonymous with one city — New York.
Sure, there were crossover episodes with Baltimore-based Homicide and the occasional sun-kissed foray to Hollywood, but the NYC-specific stories, locations, and talent (getting one or more of the series on one’s rÁ©sumÁ© has become a rite of passage for New York-based actors) are what made L&O unique.
Or are they? Can the same gritty, ”keep-it-moving” aesthetic be replicated on the West Coast? NBC sure hopes so: when Criminal Intent goes off the air next year, and longtime star Chris Meloni leaves SVU at the end of the season, the network will need this young, fresh, new member of the L&O family to keep the home fires burning. They certainly lined up impressive talent for the task: Oscar nominee Terrence Howard, actor’s actor Alfred Molina, and up-and-comer Regina Hall head the cast.
The premiere episode immediately pulls us in a few different directions. The iconic opening, featuring the show’s title on a black screen with a baritone voiceover (”These are their stories”), is gone, but the down-to-business, rapid-fire pace of the investigation is vintage L&O. Former movie hottie Skeet Ulrich and NYC stage vet Corey Stoll are strong out of the gate as Detectives Winters and (yikes!) Jaruszalski, evoking the good old days when Chris Noth and Jerry Orbach traded wisecracks and cracked cases without breaking a sweat. But the accents out west are flatter, the volume lower, and the storylines slightly less baroque…so far.
The patented ”Law & Order twist” of the first episode was satisfying, if slightly less twisty than in recent seasons of SVU and CI, but that may be a good thing: the franchise is getting back to basics and eschewing some of the CSI-esque excesses to which it had fallen prey. Without giving too much away for those who DVR’d it, the crime involves a burglary ring, young starlets and wannabes, and an icky stage mom (paging Dina Lohan!).
Howard was nowhere to be found this week; it seems he and Molina are tag-teaming in the ”Sam Waterston” role. But the character actor otherwise known as ”Doc Ock” has set the bar high, immediately finding his groove as an up-from-poverty Deputy DA (though in classic L&O style, we only hear about that fleetingly) who is smooth enough for the Tinseltown cameras but unsentimental and pragmatic behind the scenes. Hall needs more room to grow into the ”girl prosecutor” part.
The real surprise is the solid, subtle work of Ulrich, whose name was the most distinctive thing about him on the big screen. He puts that under-the-radar quality to good use playing a soft-spoken cop whose eyes come alive when he makes the connection between a clue and a suspect. Here’s hoping that he, and the series, aren’t ultimately blinded by the California sunshine. — Robin Monica Alexander