Alana De La Garza in Law & Order by Virginia Sherwood/NBC Photo
Nothing about Law & Order in its current reinvigorated incarnation feels like a show in its 18th season. Maybe that's because so much of the cast is brand-spanking new: Jeremy Sisto and Anthony Anderson as the freshly formed detective team of Lupo and Bernard, and Linus Roache as new chief ADA Michael Cutter, alongside Alana De La Garza, who's only in her second season as executive ADA Connie Rubirosa. (Thankfully, S. Epatha Merkerson and Sam Waterston are still around as their bosses, providing continuity with Law & Order's fabled past.)

Tonight, in another strong episode, it's De La Garza's turn to shine, and she makes the most of it, proving herself a worthy successor to Jill Hennessy and Angie Harmon, my previous favorites in this often-thankless role. She is tough and aggressive, but always sympathetic, as she is forced to go up against her colleague Cutter in court as a temporary (and very reluctant) defense attorney, called into action because the Legal Aide lawyers are all on strike. (The murder in question being that of a picketer struck down by a mystery vehicle, which prompts this observation from Lupo: "That's why I don't like strikes. It's safer to stay on the job." Intentionally ironic, given the impact of the writers' strike and the looming threat of an actors' strike? But of course.)

The gimmick of having friends and colleagues square off against each other is a good one. (That will be the plot of Boston Legal's season finale May 21, when Alan Shore and Denny Crane take opposite sides of a sensational case.) It worked beautifully earlier this week in a terrific episode of Bones, when the squints acted as prosecution witnesses against their pal Bones' con-man father (Ryan O'Neal), while she observed from the sidelines. When Bones' BFF Angela risked a contempt citation by refusing to testify, the judge chided her: "There is no friendship in a homicide trial."

That's certainly the case on Law & Order tonight, as Rubirosa makes spirited objections to the police's "egregrious conduct" that "shocks the conscience"- words that come back to bite her later on. There's plenty of suspense and high conflict as the case takes a number of unexpected and satisfying twists. Even as she risks alienating her professional friends and partners, she gains the respect of Cutter and McCoy along the way. I know she gained mine.

It is so refreshing to see a show that has been around this long continuing to challenge itself. No reason at this point to bet against Law & Order surpassing Gunsmoke's 20-season record as prime-time's longest-running drama series as long as it keeps up the good, solid work.