Jeremy Sisto, <EM>Law & Order</EM> Jeremy Sisto, Law & Order

Just when you thought Law & Order (Wednesdays at 10 pm/ET, NBC) was headed for its final verdict, the veteran procedural is winning new and old fans again.

A year ago, L&O's ratings plunged when it was moved from Wednesdays to Fridays and the newer cast members — including Milena Govich, who played the first female detective — didn't spark much interest. In TV parlance, L&O was on the bubble. "Nobody wanted to hear that dreaded bubble word," says Jesse L. Martin, who plays Det. Ed Green. "That's what you hear before you hear the canceled word."

Dick Wolf, who created the show and its spin-offs and still keeps a tight watch, wasn't about to let the mother ship sink. He made new hires: Jeremy Sisto as Det. Cyrus Lupo and Linus Roache as Chief Assistant DA Michael Cutter. The Sisto-and-Martin team has a free-flowing ease not seen since the days of the beloved late Jerry Orbach, who played Martin's partner Lennie Briscoe. "Jeremy and Jesse are terrific together," executive producer Peter Jankowski says. "They're contemporaries and they have a real good energy."

Wolf also brought back Rene Balcer, the Emmy-winning show runner during L&O's glory days, and is using more handheld and long-lens cameras, allowing for more reaction shots and "a modern cinematic feel," Jankowski says.

For fans, who have flocked back to the show since its return to Wednesdays, the most radical change is the introduction of personal stories. "I've been told that I got more backstory than any character in 10 years," Sisto says with a laugh. In this season's first episode, we learned about Lupo's overseas work in antiterrorism, his brother's suicide and his former entanglement with his sister-in-law. There are even hints of a possible romantic triangle between Lupo, his brother's widow, Jenny (Guenia Lemos), and a clearly smitten Green. "We're still not doing a soap opera," Jankowski says, "but our fans always wanted to know more about the characters. And that will come up as it relates to the story of the day."

Does a reinvigorated Law & Order have a chance to surpass Gunsmoke as the longest-running primetime drama? If the fans in New York City are any indication, yes. "We're getting mad love from the folks on the street," Martin says. "They really dig the changes. I'm feeling pretty confident. And I bet you Dick Wolf is, too."

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