|We already know three things about the next season of "Law & Order": It will be returning for an 18th season, after months of rumors that the long-running procedural might get the ax; it will return after the football season ends; and Fred Dalton Thompson will mostly likely not return as curmudgeonly District Atty. Arthur Branch.|
Thompson, a former U.S. senator from Tennessee, has been mulling a presidential run, and though NBC president Kevin Reilly said he had no inside information on the actor/politician's plans, Reilly told the press Monday that "it's pretty clear that Fred is going to be leaving the cast of the show no matter what."
So that's settled. The next step is to reinvigorate this aging series with some energetic new cast members. It's not that there's anything wrong with S. Epatha Merkerson, who ably plays Lt. Anita Van Buren, or Sam Waterston, who gives the show its moral center as Assistant District Atty. Jack McCoy. But Jesse L. Martin has always been a bit of a cipher as Detective Ed Green. Not bad, just -- to me -- a little on the bland side.
The fact that Martin has been paired with Milena Govich this season hasn't exactly helped matters. As the show's first female detective, the hotheaded Nina Cassidy, Govich has been an unfortunate misfire. Granted, the tightly plotted "Law & Order" doesn't give actors much to work with in terms of character development, but Cassidy is nowhere near as interesting to watch as classic "L&O" cops played by Chris Noth, Dennis Farina, Jerry Orbach ... I could go on, but you get the idea.
Speaking of blah characters, Alana de la Garza doesn't exactly set my world on fire with her portrayal of Assistant District Atty. Connie Rubirosa (then again, I don't think the show has had a decent ADA for a decade or more). True, much of "L&O" is formulaic, but the best actors on the show can invest their roles with something meaty and memorable. That's not the case here.
Still, the franchise rumbles on, and Friday's season finale, despite those cast deficiencies, is solid, though it makes you wonder if the "Law & Order" writers think there are any law-abiding, morally decent rich people in the city of New York.
Harry Hamlin plays a former U.S. senator whose wife ends up dead in the episode's opening minutes. That turns out to be the least of his family's problems; in a back story that recalls Hamlin's spoiled, wealthy character on "Veronica Mars," the skeletons in the senator's closet come out and a sad history of child abuse and spousal battery comes to light.
In two other satisfying guest turns, Jeremy Sisto ("Six Feet Under") plays the lawyer defending Hamlin's character, and Jeffrey Tambor ("Arrested Development") adds a welcome element of showboating as the media-loving judge presiding over the case.
Showboating? On "Law & Order"? Well, why not? The show is, of course, known for its sober, if caustic, takes on high-profile crime cases. It's not really an actor's paradise, though some have made their characters into much more than they are on the page. That's why the occasional quirky turn, such as Tambor's, is necessary to keep the show from becoming too predictable.
And if the show wants to make it to its 20th season -- and it is creator Dick Wolf's fervent wish that his show overtake "Gunsmoke" (20 years) as TV's longest-running drama -- it needs to shake its cast up once again.
By the way, in case you missed the news, the spinoff "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" is sticking around, but this fall, it is moving to another NBC Universal property -- to cable's USA Network. "Law & Order: SVU" will remain on NBC's Tuesday schedule next season.