|This is a plea: ''Law & Order,'' get your act together.|
That's not a sentence I ever thought I'd write. For the last decade, NBC's ''Law & Order'' (Wednesdays, 10 p.m.) has been that rarest of TV phenomena, a virtually indestructible dramatic series. While ''NYPD Blue'' gasps for air and recycles plotlines after eight seasons, and ''The X-Files'' and ''ER'' stumble along after seven years, past their peaks in the eyes of anyone but the most devout fans, producer / creator Dick Wolf's cops and lawyers series is soldiering toward the end of its 11th season riding high in the ratings (it ranks 11th out of 155 shows) and still offering compelling storytelling and, thanks to a rich New York theater talent pool, the best guest actors on TV.
But this week's abrupt decision by Angie Harmon to leave the role of fiery prosecutor Abbie Carmichael after three seasons is bad news for a show that doesn't need any more bad news. Harmon reportedly objected to Wolf's decision to keep the ''Law & Order'' cast working through May to stockpile episodes for next fall in case of SAG and WGA strikes, and Wolf seems to have responded with the ''my way or the highway'' gruffness that has been one reason that the show's six roles have been filled by no fewer than 16 actors.
Harmon, let's be clear right up front, is a big loss. She brings energy and piercing toughness to the show's second half hour, has great chemistry with Sam Waterston, and is probably largely responsible for the show's uptick in popularity among 18 to 49 year olds. She shouldn't be tossed away casually by a producer who, frankly, is looking just a little greedy in his attempt to bully past any possible strike. (Taking no chances, Wolf may also extend shooting on ''Law & Order: Special Victims Unit'' and already has 13 episodes of a THIRD ''Law & Order'' series called ''Criminal Intent'' in the can.) Since Harmon is the third woman to exit the same assistant district attorney role prematurely (the others were Jill Hennessy and Carey Lowell), one has to at least wonder if there's a gender problem in the management of the show.
And, although Wolf is justly famed for his knack for recasting, his last graft hasn't taken very well. Dianne Wiest, a year into her role as Steven Hill's replacement, still seems ill at ease as District Attorney Nora Lewin. She's hard nosed one week, indecisive the next; both character and actress seem unsure of their prospects.
Truth be told, ''Law & Order,'' though its quality remains high, is coming off a notably undistinguished season. Wolf's installation of veteran director Arthur Penn as show runner, the loss of master plotter Rene Balcer, the distraction of two spinoffs and the failed journalism drama ''Deadline'' -- whatever the reasons, the winding, sidelong unpredictability of ''Law & Order'''s plotlines, which is what makes the show great, has eroded badly. Too many episodes have been EXACTLY what they seemed after the first 15 minutes, and too many ads promising an episode ''ripped from the headlines'' (a designation the series used to shun and now brags about) have been just that: dull rehashes of uncomplicated but promotable stories.
''Law & Order'' has a lot of life left in it. It better, because last year it won an unprecedented five year renewal that will keep new episodes coming into 2005. That's all the more reason why the franchise can't afford to get sloppy. Pushing to churn out six extra episodes at the end of a creatively weak season is not what this show needs right now, and neither is the loss of one of its most valuable players. Having three ''Law & Order'' series running simultaneously next fall may be impressive, but if the mother ship doesn't right itself, this empire will have no clothes.