"Law & Order: Los Angeles" (Dean Hendler / NBC )
It has been a hallmark of the series "Law & Order" that its format — which lasted two decades in its original flavor and lives on in the current first season of NBC's "Law & Order: Los Angeles," or "LOLA" — has mattered as much as the characters who inhabit it. But of the many actors who have passed through this system over the years, perhaps none has departed quite as remarkably as did Skeet Ulrich, formerly the top-billed star of the L.A. franchise, who lasted all of 11 episodes as Det. Rex Winters before going down in a hail of bullets April 11.
Ulrich's final episode, the first "LOLA" to run after a four-month midseason hiatus, was promoted with much solemn fanfare, as if it were the fulfillment of a meaningful and considered dramatic arc and not part of some desperate internal realignment. (If anything, with his killer cut loose in a flurry of improbable jurisprudence, it's the beginning of a dramatic arc, should "LOLA" live that long.) On the face of it, this makes Ulrich looks like the Problem That Needed Fixing, but it would be wrong to heap too much blame on him. I found his natural stolidity appealing and quite in keeping with the house style. And he seemed like a real policeman.
"Law & Order" itself may be running out of juice: the original was axed on the verge of its becoming television's longest-running drama (it tied but did not surpass "Gunsmoke"); "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," which NBC shares with USA to split costs, is in its final season, and though "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" is the fourth-place network's highest-rated drama, that is not saying much these days. (It finished 44th last year.)
Still, looking again over his episodes, it's clear that there are some actors who can live in creator Dick Wolf's universe more comfortably than others — sincere Sam Waterston and wry Jerry Orbach are the prime examples — and that much of what makes for success there is the ability to distract the viewer from the fact that, underneath its veneer of naturalism, the franchise is heavily stylized, with a tendency toward corn and cliché. The short scenes that are its building blocks leave little room for casual talk, and the series runs on speeches, sermons and tough-guy quips. "If the STDs don't get you, the blunt-force trauma will."
Ulrich could sound strained in this melodramatic key, and the strain could expose the seams. But to be fair, Terrence Howard, another even-tempered actor, also has trouble with the righteous attitudes he's required as deputy district attorney to strike, while, conversely, Alfred Molina, who until the reboot alternated weeks with Howard, could make too much of a meal of them.
Wolf and NBC may have bet on West Coast exotica to invigorate the franchise, but New York itself has always acted as a corrective to the melodrama: Whatever happened in the story, there was no getting around the realness of the city itself, pressing in with its weather and walls and visible age. Southern California, by contrast, is wide open and blue-sky bright, always ready for its close-up. "LOLA" embraces (which is not to say endorses) the local glamour — we first saw Ulrich shot from below, his head framed by palm fronds — even as, like many East Coast arrivals, it does not quite comprehend our lackadaisical civic spirit. For one shot, the show invented a tabloid, the Los Angeles Post, in order to display the sort of noisy, angry headline the Los Angeles press does not in practice supply.
Indeed, the very practice of ripping stories from the headlines and then altering the details can make the show seem not more authentic but less. It is as though we have stumbled into a parallel world where Disney makes "Dance School" not "High School" musicals, and the crooked schemes of the governors of Bell are transplanted to a city called East Pasadena, with a few murders attached.
While Winters' death was well-handled — it was a shock, even if you knew it was coming, and you knew it was coming, so heavily had it been promoted — the episode that contained it was actually one of the series' weakest, a noisy mechanism designed to get Molina's Ricardo Morales mad enough at boss Peter Coyote to quit the D.A.'s office and return to the police force, where he has squeezed his bulk into the hole Ulrich left behind. (The scenes in which Coyote has argued with his deputies have been overheated sometimes near the point of hilarity.)
This move means that Molina and Howard are now in every episode, and it has paid some benefits: teaming Molina with Corey Stoll's Tomas "TJ" Jaruszalski recreates the popular old cop-young cop dynamic of classic "L&O" (Briscoe and Logan, Briscoe and Curtis, Briscoe and Green). Stoll's mustache has also disappeared in the revamp; it makes him seem quite another person, as if his role had been recast without recasting it. Molina is more relaxed and funnier in his new old job, and there is a growing warmth to his and Stoll's banter. (Winters was not a humorous character.) It's a small thing, and perhaps not enough to save the series, but flowers may bloom there.