Skeet Ulrich

The most radical departure in NBC's Law & Order: Los Angeles (Wednesday, 10/9c) isn't the new location, but the lack of a portentous "these are their stories" intro. It's not the only thing that has been lost in the transition. 

The pilot episode (which includes a brief glimpse of Wanda de Jesus as the police lieutenant, replaced afterward by Rachel Ticotin) expends a lot of effort letting us know where we are, as if we haven't already been there a million times before. "Who'd believe me if I told?" says a hotel security guy to one of the detectives after unearthing a piece of crucial evidence. "It's L.A. — Everybody," is the response. Dudes, this isn't Chinatown, and you're not Jake.

It may be a cliché to say that New York is an essential character and component of the Law & Order brand, but it's true. The distinctive grit and energy of the urban metropolis are lacking in the sprawl of L.A., which is also so overexposed on TV in its sun-drenched glamour that LOLA feels old hat before it even arrives. (It doesn't help that many fans of the franchise are still disgruntled by NBC's clumsy and unnecessarily sudden dumping of the legendary mothership at the end of last season.)

Having seen two episodes, I'm stymied why NBC went with the weaker ripped-from-the-tabloids "Hollywood" first, unless the network wanted to exploit the story's Lindsay-and-Dina Lohan/TMZ "young Hollywood" vibe. The plot, using the classic original formula that splits the hour between the detectives and the prosecution, hinges on a burglary ring targeting starlets and their hangers-on. A pattern emerges that places suspicion on a troubled movie-star princess and her clinging, controlling hot mama. Things naturally get deadly, exposing secrets and fame-driven deals that would make Harvey Levin drool.

On the case: detectives Rex Winters (Skeet Ulrich at his most woodenly stoic) and TJ Jarusalski (Corey Stoll, nicely sardonic), whose chemistry or lack thereof takes some getting used to. Rex is impassive to a fault, while TJ is a cockier sort, with an inside-Hollywood perspective that unfortunately prompts him to give impromptu lectures about the dark side of wanting "the good life." My favorite moment in their investigation had nothing to do with the rather routine case but with a momentary detour into the world of reality TV, revealing just how fake Hills-like confrontational moments really are.

For the prosecution: blustery Alfred Molina, assisted earnestly by Regina Hall. (Next week, the DA's will be played by Terrence Howard, far more compelling in his soft-spoken empathetic approach, and new-to-me Megan Boone.)

I much preferred next Wednesday's "Echo Park" hour, which takes a Manson-like murder cult as its inspiration, with classic L&O legal complications from a wrongful imprisonment case that embroils Winters' wife (nicely and ambiguously played by Teri Polo), a former detective who retired to start a family. This felt much more like the Law & Order I've admired for so long, using the L.A. mythology of macabre death to better advantage.

Still, I miss New York.

(Side note: Devoted Law & Order fans will get their first glimpse of Ulrich if they tune in an hour early for a very dark episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, spotlighting Jennifer Love Hewitt in an emotionally wrenching guest turn as a traumatized and terrorized victim of serial rape. The suspect's trail leads to numerous cities including Los Angeles, and we see that Winters is the kind of cop who goes above and beyond the call of duty, earning Olivia's respect. Which isn't always easy.)

This is a big week for Law & Order fans. Not only are we getting our first look at LOLA, but BBC America is finally importing Law & Order: U.K. (Sunday, 10:30/9:30c), one of a number of international versions of the show that adapt scripts from earlier seasons, transposing them to a different country and culture. (After the Sunday premiere, regular episodes will air Fridays at 9/8c.)

This is classic Law & Order through and through, where only the wigs worn in court and the accents are significantly different. The London environs evoke the urban New York feel, and the cast here is top-notch, refreshingly reintroducing us to the notion of a lead detective who's been around the block a few times. (In the post-Jerry Orbach Law & Order world, maturity has been at a premium.) Bradley Walsh is joined on the beat by Battlestar Galactica's Jamie Bamber, and their professional banter feels spot-on. Also loved their female boss, played by stage star Harriet Walter, a true "yummy mummy" (as she wryly puts it). The prosecution side is equally solid, with Ben Daniels trying the cases with smart assists from Doctor Who's Freema Agyeman, while avuncular Bill Paterson supervises. (His easy authority sent me into a nostalgic reverie for the glory days of Steven Hill.)

The first case, which those with long memories will recall from the original series, follows the disturbing discovery of a baby found in a bag outside a hospital. Is the mother murderously neglectful and to blame? Or are there other forces at work here, and if so, how to get justice?

Watching Law & Order: U.K. reminded me why I fell for this series in the first place. Watching Law & Order: Los Angeles reminded me of why so many had tired of it.

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