Law & Order Is Fresh and Urgent Again

Did I say there was nothing to watch on TV? Well, I lied. Law & Order returns tonight with a two-hour premiere of its 18th season. And all of a sudden, the show feels fresh and urgent again.

I've dabbled a bit with Criminal Intent and Special Victims Unit over the years, and I like them just fine, but I'd fallen out of the habit of regularly watching the original series -- though it's impossible not to stumble across reruns all over the cableverse at all hours of the day. But no matter how many plotlines L&O ripped from the headlines, it was feeling a bit, well, moribund. No more. With a simple switch-out of a few cast members (which I wrote about earlier here), the show has been almost completely revitalized.

The two hours of L&O tonight -- airing from 9 to 11pm Eastern on NBC -- are two back-to-back episodes. In the first one, "Called Home," Detective Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin) gets a new partner in Detective Cyrus Lupo (Jeremy Sisto), who returns home from "overseas," where he's been working "intelligence" for several years until his brother dies; apparently he was the victim of a drug overdose. (The ethics of a cop investigating the murder of a member of his own family gets smoothed over pretty quickly.) Sisto's Lupo is a quiet, thoughtful guy, perhaps not what you'd expect if you've seen his performances in Six Feet Under or Waitress, but with the same intensity the actor always brings is in full force; it's just more sublimated here. I'm looking forward to seeing how the show works Lupo's mysterious "intelligence" background into the upcoming stories. This series has done terrorism stories before, but now, with Lupo and his special talents, they could take on a whole new potency.

On the Order side, there's a new prosecuting attorney in Michael Cutter (Linus Roache), who brings a particularly pragmatic attitude to his cases. In tonight's second episode, "Darkness" -- which starts off with a kidnapping and gets tangled into Enron-esque corporate malfeasance -- Cutter makes a call to take a legal shortcut that comes back to bite him on the ass. It looks like he's going to be butting heads with the more idealistic Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston), his boss (the D.A.) over the best way to put the bad guys behind bars.

A skeptical practicality: it's the defining characteristic of both Lupo and Cutter, like even though they're part of the system, they realize it can't quite be trusted to do the right thing. They get things done, and it's not about bending rules but about making up new ones to deal with circumstances the rules never imagined. It's what makes the show suddenly feel like it's of the moment again, and I love it.

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MaryAnn Johanson (email me)

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