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It's a night of returns on TV with "Bones" coming back from its baseball hiatus and "Law & Order" beginning a new season earlier than first planned, as NBC has shaken up a couple of nights. I have seen a couple of the new episodes of "L&O," and marvel again at how the show affects a reassuring sameness while making significant changes in the way its characters interact.
Of course, when you're constantly changing characters, you're also creating new opportunities for people to play off each other, and that has certainly been the case in the way Linus Roache's character, Michael Cutter, is in effect the new McCoy while Sam Waterston's McCoy has tried to be the new Adam Schiff. But, as is seen in tonight's episode, McCoy is not Schiff.
Schiff, beautifully played by Steven Hill, was a bit of a grump but basically a low-key one. He was also very well wired into New York politics and knew when a quiet dinner was better than a noisy courtroom scene. McCoy was and is a hothead and one, as we saw last season, who did not have the political cover that Schiff had.
Nor has he won the complete respect of Cutter, especially when he goes to extremes to win a difficult case. Add that McCoy is in a political campaign to keep his office, and you have a combustible mix. This being "Law & Order," the tension of the first episode is back-burnered in favor of greater focus on a case in the second episode; still the conflicts among the prosecutors (and, for that matter, the police) are not settled and always there for use down the road.
The road at the beginning of the season goes through "Rumble," which begins with the beating death of a stockbroker and morphs into a consideration of street fighting and vigilanteism, with the latter an element both of a crime and its prosecution. The plot is not the best that "L&O" has done; it's loose structurally, and strains to fit together the pieces of the case in a way that makes it seem difficult for a jury and awkward for the lawyers. "Challenged," the second episode of the new season, airing on Nov. 12, is more of a vintage "Law & Order" -- with a case depending on a mentally challenged man played by Michael Rispoli. Here, too, there's at least one plot development I did not buy. But it's serviceable enough. I might not watch much more of "L&O" in prime time this season, but I won't rush to channel-hop past these episodes when they join the show's legion of reruns.