Alana De La Garza, Terrence Howard

Used to be you'd have to wait until between seasons for the Law & Order revolving door to claim its victims. LOLA doesn't have that luxury. An ill-conceived and poorly cast clone rushed on the air after NBC unwisely and abruptly scuttled the mothership at the end of last season, Law & Order: Los Angeles substituted sun-splashed sprawl for urban grit. The results were not pretty, or especially interesting.

Want more Matt Roush? Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!

Yanked off the air in December after only eight outings for emergency retooling, LOLA returns tonight in back-to-back episodes with a grim resolve to fix things before it's too late. And I do mean grim.

The first hour, as recent promos have teased (and spoiled), is the swan song for Skeet Ulrich's weirdly mannered and dramatically constipated Detective Rex Winters, who puts his own family at risk when he confronts Mexican drug dealers involved in a massacre at a young girl's quinceanera. The crime is ghastly, the aftermath even more so. And you might find yourself wondering that if NBC wanted a show like this, why was it so quick to dump the more distinctive Southland a few seasons ago?

By the second hour, the political fallout from this ugly case has resulted in Winters' desk being occupied by prosecutor Ricardo Morales (Alfred Molina, scarily intense), who suddenly decides to return to the beat after 12 years. It's an unlikely twist smacking of desperation, but Winters' ex-partner, the generally unflappable T.J. Jaruszalski (Corey Stoll), insists, "He's still got the chops."

Morales also has a reputation from his days in court, and in one of the more credible plot twists, his actions earn unwelcome scrutiny from a critical judge. Their first case, a home invasion rape-murder that uncovers a series of pattern crimes with an unlikely prime suspect, features a strong guest performance by White Collar's Tim DeKay as a grieving widower but otherwise seems indistinguishable from a sordid Special Victims Unit potboiler.

The most promising fix in the revamped LOLA is the addition to the prosecution of Alana de la Garza, aka Connie Rubirosa from the terrific final cast of the original Law & Order. Starting in the second episode, she's teamed with the quietly compelling Terrence Howard as Joe Dekker (seen to good advantage last week on SVU, intervening in a case that hit close to home). Watching her new partner in crime-fighting execute a tricky legal strategy, Rubirosa says, "Really? That wouldn't hold up in New York."

Neither, for the most part, would LOLA. These episodes are a step up from what we saw last fall, but I'm betting NBC still regrets torpedoing the original before they got the West Coast version figured out.

Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!