Law & Order: Los Angeles debuts tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern on NBC.
The Law & Order format is one of the most endlessly elastic in television history. What makes it work so well and stretch so far that it can incorporate all manner of spinoffs is that at its center, it takes two of the oldest television genres - the cop show and the lawyer show - boils them down to their very skeletons and smushes them together into something that takes mostly just the good elements of each, leaving all of the fat behind. When the original series debuted in 1990, television was overrun by workplace dramas that followed in the footsteps of Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, though few had either of those series' charm. Law & Order's relentlessly impersonal approach to crime-solving, then, became a kind of antidote to other series' flowery prose. It was as terse and lean as a really skilled detective short story at its best.
That original series went on to run 20 seasons. The first spinoff, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, has now run over a decade as well. The second spinoff, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, was less successful, but even it changed around just enough about the format that it was able to have a long, long run that will end next year. Other spinoffs have had very short runs, but by now, creator and executive producer Dick Wolf has proved that the format can do pretty much anything he wants it to, short of indulging in deeply personal or serialized stories (though SVU certainly gives its protagonists some meaty personal stuff to play once a season or so). What Wolf has avoided doing is taking the original show and simply porting it to a new city. Law & Order, for better or worse, is strongly identified with New York, and sending it to Miami or Las Vegas or Fargo has seemingly never interested the producers.
Until now, at least. Law & Order: Los Angeles, if nothing else, proves that what makes the concept of the series work can work just about anywhere. It's unlikely that this was ever in doubt. Though Law & Order has always been set in New York, there's nothing saying that its sparse aesthetic can't work just as well somewhere else. Despite being set in Los Angeles, plastic surgery capital of the world, Law & Order: Los Angeles doesn't really bother to sex anything up. For better or worse, it's assuming that what's sexy about the show is the format. It doesn't matter if the decaying body of a female corpse is found in an alleyway or on the beach; what matters is that the woman's killer is found.
It's tempting to say that if you liked Law & Order, you'll like Law & Order: Los Angeles. This is probably true. It's basically the same show with a new cast and setting. But while moving the show to a new setting hasn't irreparably harmed it, it's taking the series just a bit to work out the kinks of where it now lives. If the original had the feel of a drizzly New York day down pat, this version of the show seems to be trying a little too hard to feel like a sunny day in Santa Monica, like those first few episodes after The X-Files moved production from Vancouver to LA. Tonight's first episode is set in Hollywood; next week's opens on the beach. There's nothing inherently wrong with this. Both of these elements are intrinsic to life in Los Angeles. But it does speak to the fact that the show is still trying to find its way.
In particular, the portrayal of Los Angeles seems like it was conceived of by people who've read one Lonely Planet guidebook to the city, the Wikipedia page, and a book called You Might be a Los Angeleno if … There's a ripped from the headlines quality to both episodes - a rather famous thing for the franchise to do - but those headlines are so generic as to be non-specific. Tonight's episode is about a Lindsay Lohan-esque starlet who has a complicated relationship with one of her parents and trouble with the law, but it might as well be about any celebrity who gets into a scrape with the police. There are moments when the episode gets at the weirdness of celebrity culture in LA - like a moment when the cops use the Internet in an interesting way to find the person who made a T-shirt that's now a piece of evidence famous - but too much of it boils down to TMZ and Perez Hilton name checks and flashing paparazzi cameras. Next week's episode involves a Manson family-like group that the cops have to pierce the inner workings of decades after the fact. But at the same time, the group is written like a pretty stale version of a bunch of California hippies, who speak in faded '60s slang and may as well be the people your parents warned you about when you wanted to move to LA as a kid.
Any Law & Order series is only as good as its cast, as the interactions between actors and the individual players' charisma provide something to keep the audience hanging on when the hard-boiled storytelling gets a little too sparse. In this regard, Law & Order: Los Angeles isn't quite up to snuff just yet. The series has borrowed a Criminal Intent innovation by rotating district attorneys each week, with Alfred Molina playing the DA in odd-numbered episodes and Terrence Howard playing the DA in even-numbered episodes. Each has a different assistant, and each will have to face off with Peter Coyote as their boss (though only Howard gets to do so in the episodes screened, as Coyote was cast late). This solution probably allowed the series to get bigger stars in these roles than many other shows would have, since both Molina and Howard can likely fit movies in between filming their episodes. Both play to their typical strengths, with Molina going gruff and paternal and Howard heading toward sympathetic and warm, but neither character has been defined much beyond the actor playing him. Worse are the police officers, who are all pretty much just there. The lead here is Skeet Ulrich. Unlike Molina or Howard, he doesn't have the charisma to just naturally carry these storylines on his own.
If there's one thing Los Angeles brings to the production, though, it's a bevy of recognizable, enjoyable guest stars, most of whom will be immediately identified by even the most casual of TV fans. Mira Furlan, Jim Beaver, Danielle Panabaker, and a bevy of others turn up in tonight's episode, and next week's has just as many familiar faces. Law & Order has always had good guest casting, and this series continues that tradition, with big name guests popping up in even the smallest of roles. It's a good way to utilize the large variety of character actors in the Los Angeles acting scene, just as the original series drew heavily from the stars of the New York theatrical world.
Law & Order: Los Angeles has been a work in progress for several months now. Indeed, when NBC announced the show in May, all they had to show for it was a hastily thrown together trailer featuring the Hollywood sign CGI-ed to read Law & Order instead. What's here is derivative, to be sure, but it's well-cast and has its moments. There's no reason to believe that given enough time, this show won't be just as enjoyable of comfort food as the other entries in the franchise. There may come a sick day when passing the hours watching a Law & Order: Los Angeles marathon on cable is preferable to watching a marathon of the original series. But the series is not yet to that point, and anyone looking to it to revive a franchise that's flagging is going to come away sorely disappointed.