|"Law & Order: SVU" understands the joys of ambiguity.|
One of this season's best episodes was a thistle of a story involving a professor ("The O.C.'s" Billy Campbell) accused of raping his student (Shannyn Sossamon), each of whom lost credibility, gained it and then completely mangled it. (From Campbell to Martin Short as a baleful psychic, "SVU" is a prime showcase for pigeonholed actors trying to stretch.)
The case galvanized the lead detectives: The prof's nice-guy studliness appealed to macho family man Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni); the girl found an advocate in Stabler's partner, Olivia Benson (Golden Globe winner Mariska Hargitay), herself the child of rape. The episode epitomizes SVU's niche: allowing a mystery to shed a glimmer of light on its detectives' inner lives.
A glimmer, please. The divorce arc of Meloni's Stabler is turning him into a distracting blow-stack. In the March 1 episode, unstable Stabler spent an hour spitting and screaming at Matthew Modine's killer. (Actually uttered: ''I should put you in pigtails, you little bitch.'') He's becoming less Popeye Doyle and more Bluto.
EW Grade: B
'Law & Order: Trial by Jury'
"Law & Order: Trial by Jury" isn't bad. It's just not necessary.
Set during the trial of a crime, the series follows the strategies of Assistant DA Tracey Kibre ("Cheers'" Bebe Neuwirth, who plays Kibre like Lilith dipped in cinnamon). It also dives into the (usually ugly) schemes of the defense attorneys, played by rotating guest stars like Annabella Sciorra.
"Trial" has the reliable rhythms of any "Law & Order" -- even its twists feel familiar. Worse, there's no drama to be wrung from Kibre's legal wrangling: As the good guy, she never gets dirty.
Instead, "Trial" finds villains in wildly guilty defendants, unbelievably prejudiced judges and seriously nasty defense attorneys (Lorraine Bracco played a lawyer who actually drove her vigilante client to the murder scene -- a silly story that was, admittedly, pretty fun).
In the end, though, "Trial" never justifies its existence as the fourth member of the crowded franchise. In legal jargon: It's a nuisance suit.
EW Grade: B-
'Law & Order: Criminal Intent'
Let's talk Vincent D'Onofrio and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." You say showboat. I say unfairly maligned delight.
After dialing it down to an 11, D'Onofrio -- along with some creepy stories -- is turning "CI" into the best of the "L&O" franchise. "CI" has its own unique, filmic aesthetic: In an Andrea Yates-inspired story, a shot of a cul-de-sac captures the looping anxiety of the murderous housemom who lives there; in another episode, a Bobby Fischer-like prodigy is surrounded by police, who close in on him like pieces on a chessboard.
Sure, D'Onofrio's Det. Robert Goren is still a know-it-all. This season, he diagnosed emphysema, confidently discussed antique silver -- even disarmed a gang of killer prison guards using only psychology: ''You belong to your church choir ... you were in the Navy ...''
Goren's still written big, but the actor has toned down his tics while maintaining a low-heat oddness refreshing in "L&O's" reserved world. (Although his partner, Kathryn Erbe, so mesmerizing as a baby killer in "Oz," deserves more to do.)
A guest appearance by Chris Noth, reprising his role as roguish Det. Mike Logan -- plaid tie and foxy grin intact -- was a surprising treat. That's key, since next season Noth will share the "CI" caseload with D'Onofrio. Here's hoping for "SVU"-style flashes of the detective's haunted background. (Dig up ''Indifference'' from season 1 of the original "L&O": In a few violent sentences, Logan creates a deeply disturbing portrait of his never-seen mother.)
Perhaps Noth, with his doting "Sex and the City" fan base, can help revive this low-rated "Law & Order." It deserves a second look.
EW Grade: B+