|The venerable Law & Order is enjoying a younger look and its old time slot.|
Ratings improved last season after the cop-and-court drama's biggest cast overhaul and a return to its traditional Wednesday home, where it opens its 19th season tonight (NBC, 10 ET/PT).
For the 2007-08 season, L&O increased 20% in viewers (10.8 million) and 22% in young adults, a year after an apparent fade led to cancellation rumors and exile to lower-rated Fridays.
A return to its traditional slot for the 18th-season premiere in January led to the biggest non-Olympic audience for that Wednesday time period since April 2005. (This season it replaces the struggling Lipstick Jungle, which moves to Fridays.)
"I'm thrilled. It's where it belongs," says creator Dick Wolf, who was "extremely disappointed" with the Friday move.
The show retains its traditional split structure, a police investigation followed by a prosecution. But the replacement of four regulars — two-thirds of the cast — over the past two seasons has shaved years off the cast's age and added freshness and energy, Wolf says. Even for a show famed for cast turnover (Anthony Anderson is the 26th series regular), it's the biggest shakeup in such a short period. "I think it is more audience-friendly (for) the next generation" of fans.
Last season, Anderson and Jeremy Sisto arrived as the police who investigate crimes, and Linus Roache as one of the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. They joined Season 17 newcomer Alana De La Garza, who also plays a prosecutor.
Wolf also credits two veteran L&O hands, actor Sam Waterston and executive producer Rene Balcer, for a revival that has drawn critical praise. It has given the show a chance to match and surpass Gunsmoke's 20-season run, the record for a prime-time drama or live-action series.
Waterston, entering his 15th season as prosecutor Jack McCoy, shifted gears last season, moving from upfront litigator to the supervisory D.A. post, replacing actor/presidential candidate Fred Thompson. Balcer, who ran the show when it won its best-drama Emmy in 1997, returned last season after working on Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
Waterston initially wondered how the passionate McCoy would fit in a job that called for substantial restraint. Long a subordinate role, the D.A. job has been expanded for the actor, although the assistant district attorneys are still the focus of the second half of the show.
Waterston found the shift created a new acting opportunity. "It's been done in a really good way, because the personality and the position are not exactly suited to each other."
The shift also meant "a fresh kind of conflict" with his successor, Michael Cutter (Roache), another aggressive lawyer. "To some degree, McCoy wants to get in there and do it all himself. So Cutter needs to assert his space, and McCoy needs to learn to sit on his hands a little bit," Waterston says.
Conflict overall has heated up. Detective Kevin Bernard (Anderson) has clashed with colleagues, including Lt. Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson). His partner, Detective Cyrus Lupo (Sisto), bridles tonight when McCoy suggests using an anti-terrorism law to prosecute defendants. And executive assistant district attorney Connie Rubirosa (De La Garza) has questioned Cutter's means.
"Rene has raised the stakes on how the characters deal with each other," Wolf says.
L&O remains loyal to its ripped-from-the-headlines roots, which provide an unlimited supply of real-life crime stories that are then twisted by the writers. Tonight's opening victim, a stockbroker, leads to a comment about anger toward Wall Street. Another episode, with guest Jena Malone, features a girl who escapes from a polygamist sect, alluding to a recent story in Texas.
Waterston says he has stayed so long because L&O still works.
"It was a really good idea to begin with, and the care and feeding of this show has been terribly careful. You have to trace that to Dick Wolf," he says. "I will say I have a sentimental wish for Dick to beat Gunsmoke. I know he wants to. After all he's done for me, I'd like to help him."