Friday, October 01, 2010

Zaki's Review: Law & Order: Los Angeles, "Hollywood"

Well, it's certainly been a tumultuous year for the many facets of Dick Wolf's multiplicitous Law & Order brand, from the promise that the Mothership series would be renewed for a record-breaking 21st season, to the show's surprise cancellation, to the question of whether it would get a last minute reprieve -- and that's not even mentioning the tumult surrounding the other shows in the L&O universe.  In the end, like the phoenix, 2010 has been a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth for the franchise, culminating in last Wednesday's premiere of its latest standard-bearer, Law & Order: Los Angeles.

Now, anyone who reads this site with regularity already knows of my seemingly boundless affinity for the late, lamented original, which the Los Angeles model is ostensibly replacing.  Thus, the twin questions the new show had to answer were how much of the original's style and tone it would retain, and also, paradoxically, how much would (or should) it distinguish itself from what's already a crowded field of not only other Law & Order series, but also the many cop shows and procedurals that have been set in and around SoCal over the years.  Well, the answer to both questions is the same: Not too much.

Oddly enough, while watching the pilot episode, "Hollywood," I was most reminded of the 1987 premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation (seriously, stay with me on this).  That show too debuted twenty years after its storied predecessor, and it too was faced with the problem of living up to its legendary name while also trying to set itself apart.  The Next Generation had a shaky start trying to navigate that divide, and like that famous sequel, Law & Order: Los Angeles evokes a great deal of promise, but also evinces some pressure at the seams from having to satisfy both of its conflicting marching orders. 

Gone is the opening narration from Steve Zimkilton, the "voice of Law & Order," setting the stage for the unfolding hour, and also gone (other than a few chords at the end of the cold open) is Mike Post's immortal theme music (or some variation thereof).  Instead, the only elements Los Angeles retains from its forebear(s) is the trademark "chunk-CHUNK" between scenes, complete with time/place title cards, and the rigid cops-in-the-first-half/lawyers-in-the-second format.  Thus, the main point-of-comparison becomes the cast, and sadly this is the one area where, as yet, the advantage is rather lopsidedly with the original.

While discussing the Mothership's cancellation this past summer, I mentioned repeatedly how, after countless casting permutations over the series' two decade run, the ensemble that had been in place for the last three years was an instance of everything just clicking from stem to stern.  Jeremy Sisto & Anthony Anderson's detectives displayed an easy chemistry that hearkened back to the halcyon days of Jerry Orbach & Chris Noth, and Linus Roache & Alana De La Garza as the ADAs brought a renewed vitality that, along with Sam Waterston's elevation to the DA role, could potentially have seen the show continue for many years hence.

Alas, such was not to be, and while Wolf's pack have assembled an impressive roster to occupy the parallel roles on Los Angeles, the sense I have is that there's still some uncertainty on their part as to how the various personalities will gel into a unit.  On the "law" side, Skeet Ulrich and Corey Stoll play, respectively, Detectives Rex Winters and "TJ" Jaruszalski (though if they were referred to as such on-screen in the pilot, it must have slipped right past me).  Of the two, junior partner Stoll comes off the best, displaying a pattern of sardonic patter that calls to mind Lennie Briscoe at his cynical best.  

On the other hand, Ulrich's Winters, who was actually introduced an hour earlier via a crossover appearance on Special Victims Unit, remains mostly a cipher in the pilot (though later episodes promise to offer a glimpse into his home life).  As a result, the Winters-Jaruszalski partnership seems more minimal than usual for this franchise, conveying neither the easy camaraderie of the Lupo-Bernard pairing from the Mothership's latter years, nor the teacher-mentor relationship of L&O: UK's Brooks & Devlin.  Given that Law & Order always left character development to play out in the margins, I'm confident that this will take care of itself in coming weeks, but at least initially it's a little disappointing.

On the "order" side, Alfred Molina, one of my favorite character actors, alternates weekly DA duties with Terrence Howard.  While I've yet to see Howard in action on the show, I can say with relief that Molina measured up admirably to the high bar I set for him once I learned he'd been cast.  His Ricardo Morales chews the scenery with admirable aplomb, blazing a trail for himself that's neither as ruthless as Jack McCoy and Mike Cutter, nor as righteously driven as UK's James Steele.  I'm enthusiastic to see Morales' interactions with DA Peter Coyote in the weeks ahead, as well as how his more bombastic personality will contrast with Howard's Jonah Dekker.

That leaves us then with the last major point of departure from OG Law & Order, and that's the setting.  Now, the notion of removing Law & Order from the NYC locales that it called home for twenty years struck many longtime fans as an affront bordering on heresy, but maybe because I already love the UK version (making its stateside debut this weekend -- set your DVR!) I was okay with it.  The pilot episode, with its plotline pretty unambiguously cribbed from the antics of Dina & Lindsay Lohan, made clear right away how the new series would draw from its hometown for inspiration, but I hope that they keep the celebrity scandal stuff to a minimum and instead try to find an angle on LA that the dozen or so other crime shows set there haven't already plumbed dry.

Luckily, the structure of the various Law & Orders are so workmanlike that even a mixed entry can be involving (as borne out by the many days I've collectively lost to TNT's marathons over the years), and the advantage of being part of a legacy like Law & Order is that you get a bit more of an extended window to find your legs than other shows likely would. While the cast and setting are both first-rate, it looks like there's going to be a bit of a learning curve as the showrunners learn to employ both to their fullest potential.  I'm confident that as the remainder of the season plays out, Law & Order: Los Angeles will prove a worthy addition to the canon.

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