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Law & Order: Trial By Jury

NBC's fourth stab at "Law"-making represents an oddly conceived, nuance- and suspense-free crimeshow that early on identifies the killers and establishes their guilt, then demonizes both them and their attorneys. Modest success still seems within reach, but a lengthy continuance will require both creative tinkering and an initially lenient Nielsen jury.

With:
Tracey Kibre - Bebe Neuwirth D.A. Investigator Lennie Briscoe - Jerry Orbach Kelly Gaffney - Amy Carlson D.A. Investigator Hector Salazar - Kirk Acevedo Arthur Branch - Fred Dalton Thompson

It had to happen sooner or later — a “Law & Order” brand extension that should be subtitled “One Too Many.” NBC’s fourth stab at “Law”-making represents an oddly conceived, nuance- and suspense-free crimeshow that early on identifies the killers and establishes their guilt, then demonizes both them and their attorneys. Destined to occupy the Friday slot that “Special Victims Unit” once dominated after Thursday’s preliminary hearing, modest success still seems within reach, but a lengthy continuance will require both creative tinkering and an initially lenient Nielsen jury.

Foremost, the basic structure — witnessing a trial from every angle, including attorney-client conversations and glimpses of jury deliberations — is so dispersed as to ultimately dilute each hour’s impact, as does the decision to make the suspects so irredeemably (bordering on cartoonishly) evil.

Based on three previewed episodes, high-profile guest casting also will be a significant element, in addition to drawing upon cast members past and present from the “Law” franchise. Luminaries in the former camp include Annabella Sciorra, Peter Coyote and Lorraine Bracco as defense lawyers and Candice Bergen as a judge.

Not surprisingly, the cases themselves still have that “ripped from the headlines” quality, but thus far with less in the way of smarts than the other editions.

Bebe Neuwirth represents the latest hard-as-nails D.A., though in a tactical error, in the debut she pledges to win a conviction or quit, eliminating any question as to how the hour — focusing on a Broadway producer (Tony Bill) accused of murdering his mistress — will turn out. In another negative that’s no fault of the producers, it’s also uncomfortable seeing the late Jerry Orbach looking so frail in his final performances.

What’s most disconcerting, though, is that this latest addition to the “Law” docket proves so obvious — painting the accused not only as guilty but almost inhuman, which applies equally to their lawyers. Coyote’s oily barrister in the second episode is so despicable you half expect him to spit fire from his nostrils, counseling a cop killer to bribe his girlfriend to stand by him during the trial. Well, Toto, we’re certainly not watching “The Practice” anymore.

Granted, there’s not a lot of gray in TV’s current roster of crime dramas, but “Trial by Jury’s” club-you-over-the-head approach hardly seems worthy of the existing trio’s well-deserved reputation as a thinking man’s procedural.

By contrast, “TBJ” offers little for more discerning palates, and widening the lens to encompass multiple windows into the trial provides even less room than usual to develop the personalities of its core cast.

Any criticism, of course, must be tempered against the fact that the “Law & Order” machine remains incredibly resilient, churning ahead through endless reruns, cast departures and formidable competition. At first glance, though, the show’s storied ability to spawn distinctive progeny appears to have hit an evolutionary dead end.

Law & Order: Trial By Jury

NBC, Thurs. March 3, 10 P.M.

Production: Filmed in New York by Wolf Films in association with NBC Universal Television Studio. Executive producers, Dick Wolf, Walon Green, Peter Jankowski; co-executive producers, Arthur Forney, Richard Pearce; supervising producer, Rick Eid; producers, Barry Berg, Chris Levinson; co-producers, Tim Deluca, Tony Phelan, Joan Rater; director, Jean de Segonzac; writer, Wolf.

Crew: Camera, John Thomas; production design, Steven Jordan; editor, Leon Ortiz-Gill; music, Mike Post; casting, Lynn Kressel, Katharina Eggmann. 60 MIN.

Cast: Tracey Kibre - Bebe Neuwirth D.A. Investigator Lennie Briscoe - Jerry Orbach Kelly Gaffney - Amy Carlson D.A. Investigator Hector Salazar - Kirk Acevedo Arthur Branch - Fred Dalton Thompson

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