Friday, March 04, 2005

Initial take: Law & Order: Trial By Jury

My first impressions of the newest entry in Dick Wolf's Law & Order television empire:
  • It's about time someone built a TV drama around Bebe Neuwirth. In fairness to Dick Wolf, he's cast Neuwirth in a series before — the short-lived newspaper drama Deadline five years ago — but there her character was a minor member of an ensemble that featured Oliver Platt in the lead role. On L&O:TBJ, she'll get a chance to shine. And she did, in this opening episode.

  • I'm less impressed with Amy Carlson, who plays Neuwirth's copilot at the DA's office. But then, I expected to be — I didn't think much of Carlson on Third Watch, either. Of course, like the parade of actresses who've played second chair to Sam Waterston over on the original L&O, Carlson's main purpose is just to keep Neuwirth's character from talking to herself.

  • The device of having recurring guest stars as the defense attorneys and judges will be interesting. Peter Coyote's slick, media-grabbing lawyer will be back, as will Candice Bergen's judge (though less than originally planned, now that Bergen has a regular gig on Boston Legal). We also caught a glimpse of returnee Carey Lowell, whose former L&O ADA Jamie Ross is now a judge, and will handle some of the caseload on TBJ.

  • I'm glad Wolf and company have found yet another way to present the inner workings of the criminal justice system, but the scattered POV of this series may get tiring after a while. The story keeps bouncing around from the ADAs to the defense to the judges to the jury. I'd much rather they made Neuwirth and Carlson the clear focus of the show, and minimized the multiple-viewpoint folderol.

  • Wonder why Fred Dalton Thompson, who plays DA Arthur Branch on L&O and is also a regular cast member here, ditched the "Dalton" for the new credit sequence. Maybe he wanted people to think it's a different actor on the other show.

  • For all the people wringing their hands over the fact that TBJ makes the fourth iteration of Law & Order currently on the air: Get over it. The four shows, despite a common universe and intersecting characters, bear only surface resemblance to each other beyond this. The mothership series has a rigidly defined structure — half the episode follows the police investigation, half the prosecution of the crime — from which it rarely diverges. L&O: Special Victims Unit is a standard police procedural with a little legal action tossed in for variety. L&O: Criminal Intent plays like the old Mystery Movie series — Columbo, McCloud, McMillan and Wife, and their cohorts — an old-fashioned inverted mystery where the emphasis is not on the whodunit but rather on the howtheycatchem. L&O:TBJ is just a more elaborate courtroom drama. Take the prefix out of the titles, and you'd hardly be inclined to think of them as parts of a whole.

  • How cool is it that both main protagonists of this series are women well on the high side of 30? (Bebe Neuwirth is 46, Amy Carlson is 36.) Though I am surprised, given Dick Wolf's predilection, that neither of the lead characters is named Alexandra.

  • Finally, how sad to watch the late Jerry Orbach playing out his last few onscreen moments as a wan, bewigged, badly pancaked shell of his familiar self. When I heard his voice cut to a ragged whisper in his final scene in this episode, I almost had to brush away a tear.

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