Jeremy Sisto, S. Epatha Merkerson and Jesse L. Martin in Law & Order by Will Hart/NBC Photo Jeremy Sisto, S. Epatha Merkerson and Jesse L. Martin in Law & Order by Will Hart/NBC Photo
The when: Wednesdays at 10 pm/ET, on NBC; the 18th (!) season launched Jan. 2 Why watch?: The granddaddy of all crime dramas takes those "ripped-from-the-headlines" stories we read about in the paper, adds plenty of razzle-dazzle and plot twists to the original cases, and offers up the kind of satisfying conclusions that real life so rarely provides. Its unique half-and-half format (episodes start with the "Law," as detectives investigate the crimes, and finish up with the "Order," as the district attorneys prosecute the offenders) keeps things moving and fresh. A top-notch cast of beautiful yet believable people makes the criminal-justice system seem far more scintillating than anyone who's ever been on jury duty could have dreamed.

Who's who: On the "Law" side, Jesse L. Martin returns as passionate (not to mention hot-as-can-be) detective Ed Green, reporting to tough-yet-sensitive Lieutenant Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) - and this season, detective Green gets another new partner in the form of Cyrus Lupo (Jeremy Sisto). As for the "Order," long-time ADA Jack McCoy (he of the eyebrows, aka Sam Waterston) this season finally got to knock the "A" off the front of his title and become the full-fledged district attorney, joined by assistant DAs Connie Rubirosa (Alana De La Garza) and newcomer Michael Cutter (Linus Roache). What's next: Sisto looks to be in Six Feet Under (which is to say, positively riveting) form as detective Lupo. He won over this possessive L&O fan - who feels that any new cast member has to prove themselves worthy of the show's impressive legacy - in his very first episode. His complicated backstory showed his depth as a cop with many imperfections who is called home after a stint abroad to deal with the death of his brother. Something juicy and not quite aboveboard is going on between him and his brother's wife, too. When it comes to Roache as ADA Cutter, the jury's still out - but the fact that he was willing to break the rules right off the bat means we should be in for some McCoy-worthy fireworks. Say what?!: Not only has Law & Order spun off two other successful series, it's actually the longest-running crime drama in American TV history. S. Epatha Merkerson first appeared on the show in 1991; Sam Waterston has been on the show since 1994; and Steven Zirnkilton has appeared in every episode since the show premiered. Who is Mr. Zirnkilton, exactly? If you've ever heard the intro to this show (or SVU or CI), you'll instantly recognize the words, "In the criminal justice system.... " Talk about job security! What do you say? L&O fans, what's your take on the fresh blood this season? How do Detective Lupo and ADA Cutter compare to past favorites? For that matter, who are your past favorites - Lennie Briscoe (played by the beloved, departed Jerry Orbach)? Mike Logan (Chris Noth)? Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy)? - Nina Hämmerling Smith More Strike Survival guidance: " The CW's One Tree Hill: Reasons You Should Visit " One Tree Hill Preview: A Little Older, a Little Wiser? " NBC's Medium: Why You Should Size It Up " Movies on TV: Ken Fox's Picks for This Week! " What to Watch: Your Guide to January Premieres