Lots of people look at the new Law & Order: Criminal Intent, its creepy nephew, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and its goaty old daddy, Law & Order, and view them the way their producer, Dick Wolf, does: as a franchise of interrelated cop shows. Wolf has learned that slapping the "Law & Order'' label on any of his crime stoppers' textbooks boosts prestige and profits. (It helped, for instance, when he advertised the 1998 Chris Noth TV movie Exiled as ''a Law & Order movie''; on the other hand, Mann and Machine, his L&O-free 1992 bomb about a cop and a curvy cop-robot, probably wouldn't have survived even if he'd subtitled it A Law & Order Fantasy.)
Peel off Wolf's labels, however, and these Law & Orders become very different creations in various stages of development or regression. Take the original series, now in its 12th season. On the police-procedural side, partners Jerry Orbach and Jesse L. Martin haven't established any appreciable rapport; it's only when a patented ''ripped from the headlines'' script is juicy (such as Nov. 28's clever sampling of the P. Diddy-Jennifer Lopez nightclub-shooting incident) that the series sparks.
These days, Sam Waterston is looking even more hangdog than usual now that his prosecutin' partner is Elisabeth Rohmwhose acting style, as revealed in two previous series, Bull and Angel, consists primarily of talking in a monotone and staring blankly, as if trying to hypnotize her colleagues and the audience with the message ''I'm a young blonde.... Nothing else matters.... You will liiiiike me....'' Sorry, Lizzie, your character's pearls-and-cashmere-sweater wardrobe is a nice touch, but your WASP ice-princess act doesn't cut it.
For acting at the other extreme, take a glance at Criminal Intent, where Vincent D'Onofrio has borrowed time from his film career to do some of the most flamboyant detective work since David Suchet twirled mustache wax as PBS' Hercule Poirot. CI is the L&O spin-off that shows you the crime first, then lets you watch how the heroes suss it all out. D'Onofrio, as a ''special case squad'' solver, reveals the workings of his character's mind by physicalizing everything. He doesn't just interrogate someone, he bends his long, wide, Gumby body around a suspect, who becomes additionally unnerved when D'Onofrio waggles a frankfurter-long finger in his face and asks cutting yet smiley-faced questions.
D'Onofrio is so eccentrically entertaining, even his costar Kathryn Erbe seems fascinated. This doesn't do much for her roleshe must have 75 percent less dialogue per episode than he doesbut it jibes with the subtle range she showed on HBO's Oz and proves her professional generosity. Although snowy owl Jamey Sheridan is similarly nonplussed and under-utilized as D'Onofrio's boss, Courtney B. Vance is terrific as a silky-voiced prosecuting attorney who makes defendants wither in the face of his elegantly reasoned cross-examinations. Add tight plotting, and CI is the L&O of the year.
Dead last, on the other hand, is Special Victims Unit, which in its third season still portrays Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay as the most naive, bleeding-heart molester busters in America. The only time I perk up is when officer Ice-T slams a perv against a wall or when Stephanie March unscissors her legs from under the prosecuting attorney's table to demolish a creep on the stand.
Rather than continue to expand the L&O brand (I fear that somewhere, a crack team of writers is beavering away at the pilot of Law & Order: Shoplifter Shift), these shows should be condensed. On that Nov. 28 L&O, Dianne Wiest's DA suggested that CI's Vance ''second-chair'' a case in place of Rohm; Waterston demurred. I object: Pair Waterston with Vance as the legal team; add CI's D'Onofrio and SVU's Ice-T as the cops; use L&O's S. Epatha Merkerson as their boss, and prestothe overlord-producer would have one crackerjack series. He could even indulge himself a little and call it Law & Order: Wolf Pack. Law & Order: B Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: C- Law & Order: Criminal Intent: B+