Some things never change, which is part of “Law & Order’s” charm — a minimalist procedural that can shed series regulars the way snakes shed skin. Season No. 19’s premiere, however, finds the venerable franchise in its shakiest state in recent memory, with marginal chemistry among its latest cast configuration and a credibility-straining “hang ’em high” attitude from its Assistant D.A. and his model sidekick. Producer Dick Wolf has spoken of wanting to break “Gunsmoke’s” 20-year endurance mark for TV dramas, but reaching that milestone will rely largely upon NBC’s lack of viable alternatives.
Although the program has never wasted much time developing characters, the banter between detectives Lupo (Jeremy Sisto) and Bernard (Anthony Anderson) seems even more disposable than usual. One easily forgets what those wry, cranky asides by the late Jerry Orbach added to the process — a world-weary gravitas and wit that hasn’t been replaced.
The same largely holds for A.D.A. Cutter (Linus Roache), to whom promoted District Attorney Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) says in the second hour, “I thought I was supposed to be the hard ass.” Indeed, Cutter dances so close to the edge at times he looks to be angling for a gig in the Dept. of Homeland Security — a stretch for a series that already asks you to accept investigation, trial and verdict in less than 43 minutes (excluding commercials).
For all of that, the producers’ storytelling ingenuity continues to impress and keep the series watchable, irrespective of who’s in the opening credits. In a bit of fortuitous timing, the premiere involves an underground fighting ring that leads to a stock broker’s death, while a mysterious killing in the second hour is “ear-witnessed” by a mentally challenged man.
With three “Law’s” still in production (one of those for USA) and the reruns inevitably playing somewhere, the franchise remains a modern marvel of TV commerce and engineering — one that figures to marginally improve what has been a pretty moribund timeslot with “Lipstick Jungle” walking the beat.
After 18 years, though, even “Law & Order” can get tired — or at least get ready to start seriously thinking about graduation.