Producer Dick Wolf rolled out the first "Law & Order" back in 1990, and though it has been reupholstered more than once in the years since, it's proved a sturdy vehicle, chugging right along after a decade and a half; it will doubtless remain serviceable for some time to come. Built to last -- old episodes do not depreciate, as it were -- and to have broad appeal, it's a quality product of the old-fashioned sort, where predictability stands for reliability rather than dullness.
Still, steps have been made in the last several years to expand and update the brand, with new models added to the line. First came the "SVU" -- "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," which has ostensibly to do with sex crimes, followed by "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," which spends more time with the villains. New for 2005 is "Law & Order: Trial by Jury," which previews tonight before taking up its regular post Friday.
The model for the franchise is "Dragnet," with which "Law & Order" shares a shorthand approach to storytelling, a disinterest in the private lives of its regular characters, a wealth of interesting secondary characters and a setting that is itself a character -- "L&O" is to New York City what Dragnet was to "the city, Los Angeles." The genius of the original "Law & Order" was to take the last minute of "Dragnet" -- the one in which the apprehended criminal, seen squirming before the camera, is tried, convicted and sentenced -- and turn it into the last half of an hourlong show. (Though this too had an old-TV precedent, in the 1965 "Arrest & Trial.") "Trial by Jury" completes the process by making the trial the whole story, and we follow not only the police and prosecutors but the defendants and their attorneys, and spend some time with jurists and jurors as well.
Heading the team is assistant D.A. Bebe Neuwirth, whom many TV watchers first met as Lilith on "Cheers" and are already accustomed to regarding as a combination of hot stuff and focused efficiency. She is ably assisted by fellow assistant D.A. Amy Carlson ("Third Watch"), investigator Kirk Acevedo ("Band of Brothers") and D.A. Fred Dalton Thompson, moonlighting from "Law & Order." The late Jerry Orbach was imported from that same series, on which he played detective Lennie Briscoe for 12 years, and filmed two episodes before his death; it is both sad and, you know, nice to see him here.
Also like "Dragnet," and unlike "CSI," the newer, flashier franchise down the road, the Wolf series favor a low-key approach to acting, camerawork and editing to create a sense of documentary realism -- to let the facts speak for themselves, ma'am. At the same time, for all the vaunted headline-ripping, they are extremely stylized and -- in the tradition of crime fiction -- concentrate almost wholly on murder.
Though each episode of "Trial by Jury" begins with the words, "In the criminal justice system the most important right is a trial by jury," the three episodes available for review are all about putting away the guilty. (Subsequent episodes may redress this imbalance, though as this would require the heroine to prosecute the innocent, I doubt it.) Even though the prosecutors are happy to work the system, and to gain convictions on flimsy evidence, they are clearly the good guys -- Neuwirth, like Sam Waterston, her opposite number on "Law & Order," is too lovable not to root for -- while the defense attorneys seem scarcely better than the perps they're representing, and sometimes worse. (Annabella Sciorra, Peter Coyote and Lorraine Bracco are the first three guest stars to wear that black hat.) These defense attorneys are out to get money or power, not to champion the innocent ("I don't care if you did it -- I'm not interested in proving you innocent, just not guilty," Sciorra tells client Tony Bill, a sociopathic Broadway producer on trial for murdering his pregnant girlfriend) or even to maintain the integrity of the system, which is designed to protect the rights of the falsely accused.
In other times, when we were not saddled with a system of terror alerts, and were perhaps less concerned with chaos on the streets than with the potential incompetence of the justice system, and were more likely to identify with the underdog than to fear his bite, the lawyer hero was almost invariably a defense attorney -- Perry Mason, Rumpole, Matlock, among TV's more celebrated names. (Doubtless the system works most of the time, but we know that it has flaws -- even fatal flaws.) They were the voice of the voiceless against arrogant power. To judge by what fills prime time nowadays -- cop shows still busting out like spring flowers, "Boston Legal" the pockmarked face of the defense -- we are currently in a prosecutorial mood, subscribing to entertainments in which punishment is the primary emotional payoff. This is no more or less realistic than the Perry Mason model, but it would be a kind of relief to have him back again.
'Law & Order: Trial by Jury'
When: 10 tonight, moving to 10 p.m. Fridays
Ratings: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)
Kirk Acevedo...D.A. Investigator Hector Salazar
Amy Carlson...Assistant District Attorney Kelly Gaffney
Bebe Neuwirth...Assistant District Attorney Tracey Kibre
Jerry Orbach...D.A. Investigator Lennie Briscoe
Fred Dalton Thompson...District Attorney Arthur Branch
Executive producers, Dick Wolf, Walon Green, Peter Jankowski. Creator, Dick Wolf.