It's a different character, a different city, and a different department, but when Andre Braugher returns to NBC for his first appearance on Law & Order: SVU Wednesday (airing at 10/9c on NBC), there will be one very familiar face in his midst.
"It's kind of funny because Munch has been in both of these worlds, and here I am basically in Munch's world appearing as someone else, so there's a cute little meet and greet," Braugher tells TVGuide.com of his reunion with Homicide: Life on the Street co-star Richard Belzer. "I say, 'Have we met?' There's a glimmer before we get down to brass tax in the show basically to acknowledge we know each other and that we spent a significant amount of time together."
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It's been almost 12 years since Braugher retired his badge in the 2000 Homicide TV movie, and although his co-star is still portraying the same wise-cracking cop, Braugher's Det. Frank Pembleton is nowhere to be seen. Instead, the two-time Emmy winner will guest-star in three episodes as Bayard Ellis, a well-known defense attorney who made his money defending drug kingpins and now works pro-bono. "Bayard Ellis is a lawyer with the resources and a real desire to represent defendants to make sure they get the kind of trial and the kind of defense that they deserve," Braugher says. "Quite often the criticism of the state is that they choose defendants that don't have resources and consequently bargain down the charges or prosecute those people who have no chance of really presenting a sturdy defense."
Although Bayard's presence will cause big problems for the SV unit, he'll serve as a sympathetic ear (and maybe more) for Olivia (Mariska Hargitay). "It's been pretty well established over the years that it's very hard for Olivia to create balance in her life. He is suggesting that he knows where she's coming from and that the pursuit of justice and the defense of your clients in the pursuit of justice is all-consuming. As important as that work is, it's also taxing and also drains all the participants of all their strength or energy," Braugher says. "Right now, Bayard and Olivia are fellow travelers. Where it develops, I don't know. But right now, he may be the enemy, but he's not a villain."
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But make no mistake. Bayard may reach out to Olivia on a personal level, but in the courtroom, he means business. "I think that makes the storytelling is better when you have credible opposition rather than guys who are pushovers. It allows those stories to take on a little more depth," Braugher says. "[The episode] reveals that the justice system is broken in its own way so that's different storytelling than you normally see on SVU or any of the Law & Order shows."
It's this focus on storytelling that had driven Braugher away from procedurals and towards edgier, more serialized cable fare in recent years. In 2006, he played a recently widowed robber posing as a classic car salesman on FX's Thief before the drama was axed after one season. He then stepped into the shoes of Owen Thoreau, a car salesman (for real this time) facing his 50s on TNT's Men of a Certain Age. Like Thief, Men of a Certain Age was critically adored, but failed to resonate with viewers. The series was canceled this past summer after two seasons and a passionate save-the-show campaign from creators and executive producers Mike Royce and Ray Romano. "I wasn't very optimistic. Mike was very optimistic as was Ray because it's their baby. Having been in television for a long time, I've seen a lot of good shows get canceled and the writing was on the wall for me," Braugher says. "We needed more eyeballs and we couldn't find them to save our lives."
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Despite these recent professional disappointments at the hand of the Nielsen box, Braugher knows TV is still where he wants to be. "I consider myself good at what I do and it really becomes a question of what the storytelling is like. This is an art form that I love: being on television and the storytelling is superb. Sometimes it's on cable and sometimes it's on networks, but it doesn't really matter to me at all," he says. "I don't know what that project is or when it will come along, but I'm really looking forward to it when it happens."
That next project could even be a return to SVU beyond his original three-episode arc. Braugher says he hasn't heard anything, yet, but he'd love to come back as long it makes sense for the character. "I don't want to push it. I want it to be organic and I want it to feel right so these three episodes are really my chance to see what it's like to be in the SVU world and SVU to see what it's like to have me there," Braugher says. "It's a necessary step for all of us to really find out where we stand before making anything permanent."