"Law & Order" is such a primetime staple it's difficult to imagine an NBC lineup without it. Tthis year's newcomers have the crass feel of pandering to demographic concerns, and this high-profile sweeps installment betrays the overly familiar strains of a tired franchise.
Whether referred to as the original or “the mother ship,” “Law & Order” is such a primetime staple it’s difficult to imagine an NBC lineup without it, and the show has survived so many cast changes as to render the durability of its format almost legendary. That said, this year’s newcomers have the crass feel of pandering to demographic concerns, and this high-profile sweeps installment — not-so-loosely drawn from Mel Gibson’s run-in with the police — betrays the overly familiar strains of a tired franchise.Indeed, the “Law” spinoff “Special Victims Unit” has become “the brand’s” standard-bearer both in terms of ratings and quality, leaving “Law & Order” and second addition “Criminal Intent” more reliant on stunt casting to augment their “ripped from the headlines” cases. A case in point was “CI’s” episode this week, which dredged up an echo of the JonBenet Ramsey case, with Liza Minnelli as the grieving stage mother. As for “Law & Order,” the series’ latest cast shakeup is the worst in years. Both new arrivals are young and beautiful, but Milena Govich (plucked off franchise creator Dick Wolf’s short-lived “Conviction”) is thus far wholly unconvincing as a New York City detective, and Alana De La Garza adds little to a roster of assistant district attorneys who, frankly, have been a virtual afterthought since Angie Harmon’s departure. That leaves the cases themselves, and the Gibson riff exploits the usual formula — grabbing the story’s most salacious elements before taking a sharp turn in an unexpected (and, in this case, rather contrived) direction. Chase proves reasonably ready for primetime as Mitch Carroll, a fading star arrested for driving under the influence — the twist is he’s covered in blood, not his own. Taken to the station, he accuses Det. Cassady (Govich) of being a “Jew cop” (are there really that many of those?) and, yes, calls her “sugar tits,” another memorable exclamation from the Gibson-on-tequila repertoire. Carroll, however, is far from his prime and believes he’s been blackballed by Hollywood because of rumors regarding his anti-Semitism spread by a Jewish producer who turns up dead. Along the way there’s a whitewashed police report, broken deals, raging by Sam Waterston’s steely Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy and avuncular advice from S. Epatha Merkerson’s Lt. Van Buren and Fred Dalton Thompson’s D.A. Yet comparing this to the show’s memorable Hollywood arc of a few years ago — where detectives sifting through a studio Dumpster found “for your consideration” screeners — is to be reminded that “Law’s” best days are seemingly behind it. Wolf has said he wants the program to surpass “Gunsmoke’s” two-decade run, and given its solid ratings since relocating to Fridays and NBC’s other challenges, that’s an attainable goal. With this year’s recruits, though, it’s going to be more of a slog than a sprint to that milestone, and that’s the plain truth, drunk or sober.