Dick Wolf, the producer who created “Law & Order” and its ever-expanding spin-off army, has always blanched at the notion that his shows and the “CSI”s are similar. The “CSI” shows, he likes to say, are a franchise like McDonald”s: multiple locations, same basic meal. Where the “Law & Order” shows, Wolf will insist, are a brand like BMW: same quality craftsmanship across the line, but the features and function can vary considerably.
Anyone going into the latest spin-off, “Law & Order: Los Angeles” (which NBC debuts tomorrow at 10 in the timeslot that for two decades belonged to the now-canceled mothership), in other words, knows the broad strokes of what they”re going to get. So all that matters are the specific features, which here include:
• Like the original show, this one splits time between the police who investigate crimes and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders.
• That introductory voiceover is gone, as is (other than a five-second snippet in the pilot) the familiar Mike Post theme song or any of its variations. Instead, we open each week with the show”s logo, a pop song and – as “Criminal Intent” often did and the original show occasionally did in its later years – a scene involving the crime victim and/or the perps. The “CHUNG-CHUNG” sound effect stays, thankfully.
• The detectives each week will be Skeet Ulrich as straight-forward ex-Marine Rex Winters and Corey Stoll as wisecracking Hollywood-phile TJ Jarusalski.
• On the legal side of things, the show will rotate prosecutors, in the same way “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” split time between two detective teams for many years. First up is Alfred Molina as the politically-savvy Ricardo Morales, alternating with Terence Howard”s more heart-on-sleeve Joe Dekker. Each has their own attractive sidekick: Regina Hall for Molina and Megan Boone for Howard.
• Because the show was, like the other spin-offs, ordered without a produced pilot, there”s been a good bit of last-minute casting and recasting in the supporting roles. In the premiere, the cops” boss is played by Wanda De Jesus; from episode two on, it”s Rachel Ticotin. Peter Coyote is Los Angeles DA Jerry Hardin, but he was cast late and it”s a recurring role for now, so in the premiere we see Morales working independently of any authority figure.
• Just as New York was a character in the original series and the early spin-offs, the writers (headed by longtime “L&O” veteran Rene Balcer) want Los Angeles to be a character in the new show. The crime in the debut episode involves a Britney Spears-type clueless starlet and her reality show ex-boyfriend, while the second episode kicks off with a riff on the Manson Family murders. Conversations take place in the car rather than the sidewalk, and because the cops are part of the elite Robbery Homicide Division, the whole city is their turf.
• And where the original shows have provided frequent job opportunities to every working actor in New York, the new one is wall-to-wall with familiar TV faces in small roles. The debut episode alone includes Jim Beaver from “Deadwood” and “Supernatural,” Mira Furlan from “Lost,” Oded Fehr from the “Mummy” films, Shawnee Smith from “Becker,” Danielle Panabaker from “Shark” and Jim Piddock from the Christopher Guest films. You may not recognize every name and/or face, but you”ll recognize a lot more than you did on the original, unless you”re a hardcore theater-goer.
Those are all the notable parts. But how does the show NBC wants you to call “LOLA” work as a whole? Right now, it”s a work in progress at best.
The way the original formula works, you get to know the lead prosecutor best when he”s interacting with his boss, so with no Coyote in the premiere, it”s hard to get a strong sense of what Morales is about. (Dekker and Hardin are at odds almost immediately, and Howard gets to be on the verge of tears a lot, which is one of his specialties.)
Both cops are fairly bland, though the Hollywood setting of the first episode at least gives Stoll a few good lines. When they realize their investigation rests on finding a one-of-a-kind designer t-shirt, he declares, “I”m thinking this t-shirt needs its own Facebook page,” and one scene later he”s slapping cuffs on the shirt”s new owner and thanking its many new Facebook friends.
And the attempt to establish the show”s LA bonafides are, frankly, overkill. I know it”s a no-win situation, since everyone wanted to see how the show could exist outside New York, but by the time we get several scenes in a row discussing the TMZ tip line, it”s just too much.
Now, I basically had my fill of the brand a long time ago, but I would still check back in on the mothership from time to time, and the final iteration of the cast was one of the strongest they”ve had, and definitely stronger than this group that”s still scrambling to find chemistry with each other. But of course that group was generating cancellation-level ratings, and NBC”s hope has to be that the new city is enough to rekindle interest in a brand that (even leaving out short-lived spin-offs “Conviction” and “Law & Order: Trial By Jury”) has produced close to 900 hours of television over the last 20 years. And I”m not sure it is.
With all due respect to Wolf”s franchises vs. brands theory, what the “CSI” and “Law & Order” series all have in common is that their popularity is very much tied to the people on those shows. “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” is still going relatively strong because viewers are attached to Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni. “CSI” saw its ratings dip when Laurence Fishburne replaced William Petersen. More viewers watch “CSI: Miami” than “CSI: New York” not because of the lusher setting but because they prefer David Caruso”s hamminess to the glumness of Gary Sinise. And at last in these early episodes of “Law & Order: Los Angeles,” nobody in this group jumps out, either on their own or with their respective partner or boss. (Though Howard comes close a few times.)
If audiences already had their fill of the original format with one of its better casts, the change of scenery alone likely isn”t going to make everything seem new again. It”s “Law & Order,” no matter the coast. There are cops, there are killers, there are lawyers. These are their stories.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org