I'm more or less on holiday for the next few days, but the blog rolls on. I'm hoping to catch up on some new and returning shows as they become available, and I started with "Law & Order." It returns Jan. 2 but fans have been troubled by its long absence, and my mail has included several questions about it. Well, it's coming, and I have seen five episodes and I have a few things to say after the jump. (No plot spoilers, but a lot about the characters) ...
The show's return includes another set of casting changes, which have been common on the show over its long run. This time around, Fred Thompson has departed to run for president, so his character, Arthur Branch, is also gone. McCoy, Sam Waterston's character, has become D.A. but he's an interim appointee, and that becomes an issue as the show goes along.
Before I get into that, there has also been a change in the detective ranks, with Jeremy Sisto as Cyrus Lupo, the latest partner for Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin). And McCoy's promotion means there's a new prosecutor in town, Michael Cutter, played by Linus Roache.
Now, the formula for "Law & Order" has been so fixed and comforting over the years that cast changes don't always mean much. (Some do, of course. The loss of Jerry Orbach is still keenly felt, especially when you go back and see reruns of him in his prime. I'll be sad if and when S. Epatha Merkerson goes, since in the new season she continues to be a solid presence.) And "L&O" impresario Dick Wolf has shunned serialized storylines that make it difficult to watch episodes out of sequence, and the personal stories of the main characters have for the most part taken a back seat to the week's case.
But this time around, the changes go far beyond new faces. Sisto's character is first seen as the brother of a possible murder victim, and he has a history that keeps his character complicated and that affects his relationship with Green, and does so for more than one episode.
McCoy's elevation to district attorney also has implications that spread across those five episodes. First of all, he's been a prosecutor for so long, he can't give up supervising courtroom tactics to a degree we have not seen in a D.A. before. He still loves the battlefield, and this creates a challenge for Cutter, who is something of a lone wolf (and a hothead) and suddenly has a boss telling him what to put in his summation.
Then there's McCoy himself. As an appointee whose position could be very temporary, he does not have the power base of an elected, full-term D.A., and some of the people he deals with are aware of that. In addition, he has left a paper trail of cases he has worked, which makes it very easy for opponents (including defense attorneys) to make an issue of his politics and seeming biases.
That's very new for him, since he has often had a boss to shield him from the worst attacks; in one of the new episodes, caught in the middle of a political tussle, McCoy says he now understands why his old boss Adam Schiff was so grumpy.
Each episode still has a case, and each has its share of twists. So some of what I'm talking about here is merely alluded to, but there are episodes where the personal stories are key elements of the cases being dealt with. So this is at once the old "Law & Order" and something startlingly new.
And is it good? That I'm not so sure about. I do like that the show is realistically addressing what might happen if McCoy become D.A. I am less intrigued by Lupo and Sisto's performance. Cutter is a somewhat more interesting case, and I was getting more comfortable with him as the new episodes tooled along. And Alana De La Garza, who plays Connie Rubirosa, is still not that interesting an actress but seems more at ease -- less buttoned-up -- than she did last season.
Not that this makes me any more of a devotee of "Law & Order" than I already am. That is, I don't plan my viewing around new episodes; I probably watch the cable reruns more often than the fresh shows. Still, I have checked in with the NBC telecasts at times, and nothing here is going to make me vow never to watch them again. But neither do the new episodes make me long for more.