NBC’s Law & Order is in its 15th year and is ye old reliable of crime shows. This season introduces a new detective, played by that other old reliable, Dennis Farina, replacing the other old reliable, Jerry Orbach. Orbach (who’ll head up a third L&O spin-off, Law & Order: Trial by Jury) will be missed. His rumpled Lennie Briscoe was the most genuine of detectives. In a way, Farina’s Joe Fontana is the anti-Briscoe — the guy has a cock-of-the-walk manner and clothes to match — and he’s a nice punch to the series.
Otherwise, it’s business as usual: Detective Green (Jesse L. Martin) is still calm and cool; Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) is still indignant; that wry, redheaded coroner (Leslie Hendrix) is still, after 13 years, speaking about three lines an episode; and Serena Southerlyn is, courtesy of Elisabeth Rohm, still pretty wooden. (The actress is leaving midseason; may we suggest Nip/Tuck’s wonderfully bitchy sexaholic Jessalyn Gilsig as a replacement?)
Still humming along, L&O has become the ultimate comfort show: Every week it offers a new crime cut, dried, and shelved, making the series a handy, self-contained alternative to all the serial dramas with their demanding mythologies. Guest stars like Ron Silver and Candice Bergen are so familiar they hardly register as stunt casting. L&O even goes so far as to spell out both sides of any issue — the war in Iraq or the nasty economics of drug companies — in bite-size parcels, so you don’t have to think too hard.