Dick Wolf's crime-and-punishment drama "Law & Order" first ripped a story from a headline back in 1990, the year also of "Twin Peaks" and " Beverly Hills 90210"; of "Vogue" and "The Humpty Dance"; of "GoodFellas" and "Ghost." Nelson Mandela left prison, Germany reunified and the World Wide Web switched on. It has since become an institution — something a viewer might pass through, like high school or college, moving on as other generations move in. I watched it all the time, for a time, some time ago.
Although the original "L&O" was canceled this year — "Law & Order: Classic," as I think of it — various spinoffs spin on. The latest, "Law & Order: Los Angeles," premieres Wednesday on NBC, with last year's "Law & Order: UK" getting a delayed domestic debut Oct. 3 via BBC America. Every cop show applies a singular attitude to the same small pool of stories — that's how we tell them apart — but "Law & Order" brings something more: a mechanism, a method that kept the mother series intact through many changes of cast. (The cast, ultimately, mattered less than the method.) It's a lens, a frame, a template, a process that orders an almost ritual settling of accounts whose shorthand progress is marked by the march of title cards and the implacable chime of the signature chung-chung.
This is the first American "L&O" to be set outside of New York, and I think the choice is apt, for this is the city of Jack Webb's "Dragnet" — "transcribed from official police files" — in which series this franchise has spiritual and stylistic roots. (Indeed, Wolf produced a short-lived remake, "Dragnet L.A.," in 2003.) In "Dragnet," as in the first half of a "Law & Order" episode, a pair of stone-faced though highly ironic police detectives, trailing little or no back story, collect (just the) facts on their way to collaring a suspect — stopping now and again to remark ruefully on human folly, cite a statistic or make a speech. There is little in the way of running or shooting, or even shouting. At the end, we learn how long the perp is going in for, "Law & Order" stretching what in "Dragnet" was a mere tag into its whole second half-hour, during which there will be more remarks, statistics and speeches.
The current series has fresh air to breathe and new names to drop — Chin Chin, Caltech, Hillcrest, the Edison — and apparently plans to make a meal out of Hollywood. But it hits the traditional notes square on, moving fast in brief scenes and bursts of exposition, and splitting the difference between melodrama and naturalism. The cast includes Alfred Molina and Terrence Howard as assistant district attorneys (hot and cool, respectively) and a very solid Skeet Ulrich, finding a perfect fit for his natural inwardness. Less is more here. To reject this show is to reject the very law and order of "Law & Order."
As ever, headlines will be ripped. First comes a case that mixes the celebrity-targeting Bling Ring with a mother-and-starlet story somewhat resembling that of Lindsay and Dina Lohan — though, also as ever, we are reminded first that what we're seeing is fiction. Next week's episode, the stronger of the two I've seen, joins memories of Charles Manson — old news, but still the local personification of bad vibes — to a story of possible police misconduct, confusing viewer sympathies and staying tense until the last chung-chung.