TV Preview

Brand New Beat

The story you're about to read is true. Only some of L.A. DRAGNET's names have been changed to boost ratings.

L.A. DRAGNET ABC. 10 -- 11 PM DEBUTS SEPT. 27

Just the facts, ma'am: Most TV shows don't survive past the first season. So when a network renews a series, the cast usually feels a sense of elation at the beginning of year 2. But that's not the case on the Universal City soundstage where production has just resumed on L.A. Dragnet, the ABC update of Jack Webb's cop-show blueprint. Instead, confusion reigns.

Ed O'Neill, the only series regular returning from last season, has called in sick, so producers are scrambling to shoot scenes that don't involve his character, ascetic LAPD veteran Joe Friday (Webb's original role). The rookies who play Friday's new team of young detectives have barely had time to locate their trailers, much less their motivations. ''I can honestly say that I've never been associated with a show that went through this amount of change,'' says executive producer Dick Wolf, the mastermind behind the ever-evolving Law & Order franchise. ''It's a totally different show, but it's still Dragnet.''

Well, sort of. To distinguish L.A. Dragnet from the many cop shows set in New York City, ABC ordered the series' location appended to its title. That's just the first of many switcheroos. Out is Ethan Embry (Sweet Home Alabama), who costarred last season as Friday's partner, Det. Frank Smith. ''It was basically his decision,'' says Wolf. ''I wanted him back, but he didn't want to be part of an ensemble.'' In is a rainbow coalition of hotties backing up 57-year-old O'Neill, as well as a pair of youthfully energetic new show runners (33-year-old identical twins Jonas and Josh Pate, late of USA's short-lived GvsE) who promise to bring a more verite visual style and a faster pace to the crime drama.

Instead of following a pair of detectives through their daily routine, stories will now crosscut between numerous fledgling cops supervised by the freshly promoted Lieutenant Friday in the LAPD's Robbery Homicide Division (which also handles serial rape, officer-involved shootings, and other politically sensitive cases). To O'Neill's relief, the larger cast has lightened his backbreaking workload from last season: ''I was in every scene, 14 hours a day, five days a week,'' he says, a few days after recovering from his illness. ''Nobody could do that schedule. I think they built the pyramids like that.''

O'Neill's new colleagues are too young to remember Webb's version of Dragnet. ''I was only familiar with some of the phraseology -- 'Just the facts, ma'am,''' says Evan Parke (Alias), who plays devoutly religious Det. Raymond Cooper. The team also includes Desmond Harrington (Taken) as rough-edged Det. Jimmy McCarron, Eva Longoria (The Young and the Restless) as shrink/interrogation whiz Gloria Duran, Christina Chang (Deadline) as politically savvy deputy DA Sandy Chang, and Roselyn Sanchez (Rush Hour 2), who'll recur as career-driven Det. Elena Macias. The group is noticeably more diverse than last season's cast. Says Chang, ''[The first year] was closer to the old Dragnet, which was sweet but probably not as appealing to the public now.'' Besides, as Harrington says, ''It's nicer looking at Roselyn Sanchez than some white dude.''

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