Ch-ching: "Law & Order" is back. The two segs on tap for Wednesday's two-hour premiere are as strong any the show has delivered in years. Linus Roache is a great addition to the cast as the driven chief assistant district attorney Michael Cutter. Jeremy Sisto is intense but low-key as Det. Cyrus Lupo, the new partner of Jesse Martin's Det. Ed Green.
After hitting a ratings slump during the past few years, "Law & Order" hasn't been treated too well by NBC. The show was exiled to the Friday 10 p.m. berth last season, and then it was in limbo about a pickup (for an astounding 18th season) until the last minute prior to this year's upfronts. And then it was left off the fall sked as a bench show for the post-football period.
But the tide may have turned for the Peacock's war horse. "Law & Order" boss Dick Wolf is glad to see the show landing back in its old familiar time slot of Wednesday 10 p.m., which it owned from 1992-2006. And he is optimistic that the infusion of new thesps the return of Rene Balcer as showrunner will put the show in good stead for many more seasons to come. Show hasn't seen so many on- and off-screen changes in one year since the 1993-94 period, when key cast members Michael Moriarty, Dann Florek, Richard Brooks departed and stalwarts like Sam Waterston and S. Epatha Merkerson arrived, Wolf notes.
"It's changing the whole zeitgeist of the show," Wolf sez of the new cast lineup. "It was getting to be an older show in terms of the age of the cast and in the literal number of years it had been on. Now, it's the same show, but it's a very different six-person ensemble."
After years as the loyal deputy, Waterston's Jack McCoy has segued deftly into the role of boss D.A. No longer the maverick, motorcycle-riding crusading prosecutor, he's now the one in charge of delicately reining in his A.D.As without killing their passion for justice and putting away bad guys.
"He literally is playing the Lion in Winter. We had a lot of discussion about it," Wolf says. Merkerson, as always, is a rock as the able police Lieutenant Anita Van Buren. (Roache is pictured at right. Sisto is below left.)
Scripts for the first two segs, "Called Home" and "Darkness," are sharp and the stories well-crafted. Both involve ripped-from-the-headlines plots, but with unexpected turns. "Called Home" features a fab guest shot by frequent "Law & Order" visitor Michael McKean, who plays a craven, ratings-hungry TV journo who's involvement with a right-to-die advocate comes back to haunt him.
"Darkness" has Tom McCarthy (who's sooooo good as a sleazy reporter in the new season of HBO's "The Wire") playing an ethically-challenged hedge fund hot-shot who gets a wakeup call when his wife and daughter are kidnapped.
"The show is as good as it's ever been, and after 18 years that's saying something," Wolf says, heaping credit on Balcer, who led the show to its Emmy win for best drama series a decade ago. (Balcer's been in and out of the Wolf orbit since then, as the showrunner on "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," among other projects.)
Despite the show's late start this season, production on "Law & Order" began on its sked last summer, and because of Wolf and Co.'s well-known dedication to keeping his shows running smoothly, they had a number of scripts in the bank when the writers strike began on Nov. 5. Filming on fresh "Law & Order" segs for this season is expected to continue into next month.
"Nobody has lifted a pencil but we were way ahead on scripts. We're in an enviable position given the fates," he says. Because the strike has already shuttered so many other shows, "Law & Order" will make its midseason return in a less competitive landscape than it otherwise would have faced. Wolf hasn't been shy about expressing his view that the WGA strike has been a very bad move for the guild, but he's not trumpeting it as a plus for his show, either.
"The temporary advantage to 'Law & Order' is not worth on any level what the business is going through," Wolf says. "This is the worst possible thing that could’ve happened to an already wounded business. This is a disaster of unprecedented proportions that will only get worse. My fondest hope is that people are going to quickly come to their senses and get back in a room."