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A Case for Cloning

The Best Traits Of 'Law & Order' Are Expressed In 'Trial by Jury'

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 3, 2005; Page C01

Most viewers know about the ratings race, and millions of happy viewers apparently love to get it on with CBS's recently returned "Amazing Race." But the race to follow in TV this season is the one between CBS and NBC -- the race to see which network can spin off the most shows from a single dramatic series.

At CBS, the original is "CSI" and the clones include "CSI: NY." At NBC, the reigning faux faxes were cloned from producer Dick Wolf's tense and tough "Law & Order" show. It's not really a show anymore but a designer label that is affixed to at least one new series per season.

Among the cast of "Law & Order: Trial by Jury" are Sam Waterston, left, Bebe Neuwirth, Amy Carlson and Fred Thompson. (Jessica Burstein -- NBC Universal)

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"Law & Order: Trial by Jury" is this year's latest model, premiering at 10 tonight on Channel 4, then moving to its regular time slot, Fridays at 10. One could easily argue that every copy of "Law & Order" is a bit fainter and less vivid than the original, but not by all that much.

The original blueprint -- "Law" in the first half-hour has cops trying to solve a crime; in "Order," the second half, the district attorney's office tries to prosecute the guilty party -- has been bent and shaped in various ways but always remained recognizable. Tonight's premiere begins in a very familiar way, with the steroidal voice of a baritone announcer declaring, "In the criminal justice system, the most important right is a trial by jury. This is one of those trials."

Then -- oh, you can hear it already, can't you? -- that immortal theme, "Plink-Plunk." Have two notes ever been put to more use than these?

After previewing the first three episodes, it's safe to say that the new "Law & Order" proudly upholds the franchise, which includes "Law & Order: SVU" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." The stories have the solid punch of good daily journalism and are told in a compelling way by a cast of characters and guest stars about whom we are never told one fact too many.

As the title implies -- actually, it might imply that Wolf had joined forces with Gilbert & Sullivan. But no, it's not that "Trial by Jury"; it's a new one in that the audience is taken backstage at a trial into such previously verboten locations as the rooms where juries deliberate and rooms where grand juries grill witnesses and decide whether indictments are to be handed up.

We also get much more insight into the strategizing that goes on in both camps, prosecution and defense, and this leads to revelations about media manipulation or at least attempts at it and scenes of lawyers coaching witnesses on how to perform on the stand. A lot of acting is required by lawyers and prosecutors and even by those peripatetic perps who pop up on every show to make sure there's a plot.

The first case, involving a cold-blooded theatrical producer and a pregnant young star who's been missing since she last had dinner with him, gets off to a slightly murky start. Bebe Neuwirth, playing a ragingly confident prosecutor, doesn't look very happy to be there and has a washed-out pallor. Sam Waterston is seen briefly and then vanishes for at least the next two episodes. The killer confesses to his attorney early in the show, which will apparently be common practice on "Trial by Jury" and which, inevitably, dilutes the suspense.

But the first two shows have another compelling element that couldn't have been foreseen by producer Wolf when he got the go-ahead for the series from NBC. Jerry Orbach completed work on only those episodes before succumbing to cancer; he died in December at the age of 69. His presence seems all the more invaluable because we know it will be short-lived. He brought a terrific sardonic energy to his character, detective Lennie Briscoe, in production as he did to the template show.

Nobody was better at delivering the sly slur (a producer was guilty of "using young girls as party favors," he says) or the sarcastic observation (to Neuwirth he says, "You may be a ball buster but when you're right, you're right"). He could make the weakest dialogue seem stronger than those new improved paper towels that hold an elephant or a steam shovel.

As of the third episode, airing March 11, Orbach is gone, and the show is going to suffer. Candice Bergen, however, is a gratifying addition as a no-nonsense judge in the first two episodes and perhaps in others to come.

When "Law & Order" started, Wolf and the writers did their clever best to avoid cliches that had hounded courtroom dramas for decades. Now "Law & Order" has become such an established and dominant fixture that it has developed cliches of its own, plink-plunk being only one of them. Even so, the story structure remains strong without coming across as formulaic, and the actors work wonders filling out the skeletal characterizations in the scripts.

Once again with "Trial by Jury," Wolf's "Law & Order" takes cunning aim and hits the target with speed and precision. This is high-class television put together by people who know exactly what they are doing and how to do it.

Law & Order: Trial by Jury premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 4, then moves to Fridays at 10.

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