|For the last few years, “Law & Order” has been treated like the crazy aunt of the NBC lineup. It was banished to Friday nights, the prime-time equivalent of being told to sit in the corner and not talk to anyone. It was rumored to be headed to the assisted-living home of basic cable. Finally it was turned into a midseason replacement, allowed to slink into the party only after the liquor was put away.|
NBC had a point. It wasn’t a nice way to treat a venerable series with a devoted following and a basketful of Emmy nominations — and the cornerstone of a franchise that has generated billions of dollars over the years — but the show had been slipping in the ratings from its high point in the 2001-2 season. And even then it was no “Seinfeld” or “Friends”: its No. 7 finish in prime-time viewership that year is still its only Top 10 placement in 18 seasons.
So it was a sign of some sort of sea change when NBC recently announced that “Law & Order” would begin its 19th season early. Instead of waiting until January, it’s reappearing this Wednesday, just in time for the November ratings sweeps. The crazy aunt is back in the living room.
The immediate reason for the change is obvious: NBC is drowning in the ratings. After a 2007-8 season in which it placed only two shows in the overall Top 20, it finished the most recent Nielsen ratings week (ending Nov. 2) with just two programs, “Sunday Night Football” and its pregame show, in the week’s Top 30 in terms of total viewers. Yes, two out of 30.
In fairness, NBC shows like “The Office” and “Heroes” regularly crack the Top 20 in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic, the one most coveted by advertisers and sought by most of the broadcast networks. But even that represents only moderate success in recapturing the youth-skewing glory days of “Seinfeld” and “Friends.” The dismissal this week of two senior producers of “Heroes” was just another signal of panic setting in.
But it would be wrong to pin NBC’s sudden friendliness to “Law & Order” solely on the network’s problems. (Or on the success of “Law & Order: SVU,” the spinoff that remains the network’s No. 1-rated drama.) The show’s resurgence began earlier this year, when it returned to its traditional Wednesday-night slot for its January-May run and actually increased its average audience by nearly 2 million viewers to 10.7 million, a respectable number these days.
Being back on Wednesdays certainly helped. Just as important, though, was the thorough overhaul of the cast that Dick Wolf, the show’s pugnacious creator, has carried out over the last two seasons, particularly the additions of Jeremy Sisto as the lead detective, Cyrus Lupo, and Linus Roache as the lead assistant district attorney, Michael Cutter.
Mr. Sisto, best known as the haunted Billy on “Six Feet Under,” seemed an odd choice for the definitive fast-paced police procedural. But he has been just what the show needed, bringing a soulfulness and subtlety to the “Law” side of things that had been missing since the days of Jerry Orbach and, especially, Chris Noth. Mr. Roache, a too-
little-known British film actor (“The Wings of the Dove”), has been just as good in the show’s “Order” half, making the idealistic-prosecutor role that Sam Waterston filled for 13 seasons lighter, less stiff and more believable.
Not all the changes have been for the better. Anthony Anderson joined the cast late last season in Mr. Orbach’s wisecracking-cop slot, and he hasn’t been a good fit; producers keep casting him in crime dramas (“The Shield,” “K-Ville”) even though he’s clearly better suited for comedy. A more serious issue, though, is the McCoy Problem: that is, how to handle Mr. Waterston’s Jack McCoy character now that he’s in the district attorney’s chair.
McCoy has always operated in angry opposition: to his bosses, to the news media, to rival law-enforcement agencies. Now that he’s the boss, the show’s writers are in a bind. District Attorney McCoy has become a far greater focus of the show’s story lines than were past D.A.’s, but no one has figured out how to move the former crusader into the seat of power, and political compromise, in a way that makes sense.
In Wednesday night’s season premiere, Mr. Anderson gets to deliver the trademark opening wisecrack, over the body of a dead stockbroker: “In this economy, this is the kind of thing that might catch on.” It’s a ripped-from-the-headlines moment, but it’s the only topical reference in a plot that lurches from an investigation of fight-club-style brawling in Union Square Park to a strange, plausibility-stretching effort by McCoy to wield the Patriot Act.
It’s too bad the story is so labored, because everything else about the episode is at a high level reminiscent of the early Chris Noth-Dann Florek-Michael Moriarty seasons: the writing snaps, the performances feel lived in, the pace never flags. It seems likely that the show’s minders will solve the McCoy problem, perhaps by shifting the spotlight away from him, and that a significant core of viewers will remain loyal.
They might not be of an age that advertisers find most desirable, but given NBC’s reduced circumstances and the value of the niche audience in today’s fragmented entertainment landscape, they can probably look forward to “Law & Order” coming back — next fall, even — for the 20th season that will tie it with “Gunsmoke” as television’s longest-running drama.