As series creator Donald Bellisario strives for a "younger, hipper JAG," David James Elliott is being phased out in favor of a more youthful leading man, Chris Beetem.

Tonight's episode (9 pm/ET on CBS), entitled "JAG: San Diego," finds Beetem's Lt. Gregory Vukovic butting heads with Catherine Bell's Mac at a marine's court-martial. Meanwhile, Elliott's Harm is focused on a tragedy — we won't spoil it for you — involving his kid, Mattie. Natch, longtime Harm-and-Mac boosters aren't thrilled to see Vukovic sharing so much screen time (and generating sparks) with Harm's lady.

"Hey, he's had 10 years!" Beetem tells, laughing. "I don't see any ring on Mac's finger. My character feels that if a woman isn't tied down, she's fair game."

Jokes aside, the 32-year-old As the World Turns alum is in a tough spot. After all, he's just a working actor who's happy for the JAG job after losing his soap gig (more on that below), yet he takes flak from those who view him as a recast for Harm.

"I am definitely not trying to replace David James Elliott," Beetem says. "I know he has a very loyal fan base. I have nothing but the utmost respect for the guy, and I don't presume to fill his shoes. I am coming on as a new character; I'm doing my own thing, and hopefully people like it.

Time will tell if JAG aficionados will warm to Beetem; tonight's episode is only his third appearance on the show. But back to As the World Turns, where Beetem played Jordan Sinclair, the long-lost son of supervillain James Stenbeck. The CBS soap called Jordan's departure "story line-dictated" — which is just a pleasant way of saying he was canned, isn't it?

"It means that my character wasn't doing anything, and when your character's story line stalls, prepare to hit the road," Beetem chuckles. "I can't tell you how many people I saw go while I was there. I was only on for a year. The last four or five months that I was on the show, I was taking a supporting role to other people's story lines. So I didn't really get to fully explore [Jordan]."

Like many soap-opera rookies, Beetem struggled with the "unrealistic dialogue" and wacky scenarios daytime actors are often faced with. "Anytime my character would be hooking up with a woman, the door would be left open and someone walked in — every time!" he laughs. "I found it amazing that people just do not lock their doors in Oakdale. For instance, toward the end of my run, Jordan was caught sleeping with his wife — by his girlfriend. Try and make sense of that! You'll drive yourself crazy."