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Still ripping from the headlines: 'Law & Order' reboot continues with tradition

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The NBC drama series "Law & Order" premiered in 1990 and was televised until 2010, spawning several spinoff series along the way. But this week, the original "Law & Order" resumes after a 12-year hiatus. It's a continuation, not a reboot. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this look at the show's history and impact, as well as the contents of this new incarnation. Here's his review.

(SOUNDBITE OF "LAW AND ORDER" SOUND EFFECT)

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: That sound, which has signaled a transition between scenes on NBC's "Law & Order" and all its many spinoffs for decades, has become one of the most recognizable sounds on television. That's basically because it seems to have been around forever, and in TV history terms, it almost has. The original "Law & Order" series started in 1990, almost a full decade before the premiers of "The West Wing" and "The Sopranos." Series creator Dick Wolf, who had worked as a producer on "Miami Vice," launched "Law & Order" as a drama series that, in essence, was two series in one. The law portion was a cop show, showing how the police solved the crime and arrested the prime suspect. And the order part was the courtroom drama, showing how the prosecutors built their case against the accused and argued it at trial.

The concept for "Law & Order" wasn't original. The same basic structure was used in the ABC drama series "Arrest And Trial" way back in 1963, starring Ben Gazzara as the cop and Chuck Connors as the defense attorney. But the idea was a good one and allowed "Law & Order" over its 20 years to cycle through lots of cast changes without missing a beat. What remained constant throughout was the structure of the show, the on-location shooting in New York and the use of available Broadway actors as guest stars. If you were a stage actor in New York from 1990 to 2010 and didn't have a credit on "Law & Order" on your resume, you needed a new agent.

When "Law & Order" closed down 12 years ago, its regular cast members included Anthony Anderson, later of "Black-ish," as Detective Kevin Bernard and Sam Waterston, later of "The Newsroom," as Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy. They're both back for this 2022 version, teamed with new characters and players, including Camryn Manheim. Anderson's detective, for example, is now paired with Frank Cosgrove, a white cop played by Jeffrey Donovan, formerly of "Burn Notice" and Season 2 of TV's "Fargo." Donovan's an excellent actor, but even he can't sell some of the dialogue here, which is so clunky it's painful. The old "Law & Order" always had the reputation of having its crimes and issues ripped from the headlines but also had the reputation of being obvious and stilted with its handling of those issues. The new "Law & Order" continues that tradition.

Here's a scene in which Kevin and Frank approach a young Black man on the street to question him and tempers run so high that Frank is pulled away by his partner. Immediately afterward, Frank complains about being treated unfairly.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAW AND ORDER")

JEFFREY DONOVAN: (As Frank Cosgrove) Are you kidding me? These young kids - they got no respect. They get to say and do whatever they want. It's like a free pass.

ANTHONY ANDERSON: (As Kevin Bernard) I'm not sure what you mean by that.

DONOVAN: (As Frank Cosgrove) I mean, I'm white. He's Black. I say the wrong thing, and my career is over.

ANDERSON: (As Kevin Bernard) Maybe.

DONOVAN: (As Frank Cosgrove) Maybe? Is there another way of looking at this?

ANDERSON: (As Kevin Bernard) Hey, Frank, you came at him hot, man.

DONOVAN: (As Frank Cosgrove) I showed him my badge, and I said, how you doing? How's that coming off hot? Should I have offered him a croissant and invited him to tea at the St. Regis?

ANDERSON: (As Kevin Bernard) Maybe you should have treated him a little more polite, like a law-abiding citizen minding his own damn business.

DONOVAN: (As Frank Cosgrove) Truth is, it's these damn phones. They've ruined everything.

ANDERSON: (As Kevin Bernard) OK. That's one way of looking at it.

DONOVAN: (As Frank Cosgrove) The other?

ANDERSON: (As Kevin Bernard) They hold us accountable.

BIANCULLI: There's a different sort of built-in conflict on the Order half of the show. Sam Waterston's Jack McCoy has been promoted. He is now the DA in charge, and he oversees a new staff of assistants, including Hugh Dancy as Nolan Price. And he's upset in the season premiere episode by the way the police extract a confession from the defendant, but McCoy is not.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAW AND ORDER")

SAM WATERSTON: (As Jack McCoy) This case is front-page news, Nolan.

HUGH DANCY: (As Nolan Price) I get it. But with all due respect, that's not relevant. When you asked me to come here, you said, I need someone who sees the world through a different lens, someone with the guts to make hard decisions.

WATERSTON: (As Jack McCoy) I remember. I still feel that way. But it's a legal confession, Nolan. Cops are allowed to lie.

DANCY: (As Nolan Price) They are. But it makes the confession less reliable, less ethical.

WATERSTON: (As Jack McCoy) No. If it's legal, it's ethical.

BIANCULLI: The case itself, the one they're prosecuting, is the most incendiary aspect of this otherwise typical new version of "Law & Order." The fictional case involves the murder of a popular celebrity named Henry King, accused of drugging and raping 40 women. It's obvious that this episode is ripped from headlines tied to Bill Cosby. And that's noteworthy, if for no other reason, because when the original "Law & Order" premiered on NBC, two of the network's top five TV shows were from Cosby, "The Cosby Show" and "A Different World." Bill Cosby ruled NBC then and was responsible for its reversal of fortune from third place to first. Today, as "Law & Order" returns for Season 21, Cosby is being used as anonymous inspiration for just another TV plot.

And this new "Law & Order," make no mistake, is just another TV edition of the same familiar show, another cog in a very reliable machine. From its memorable theme music by Mike Post to the quick pace of it's-just-the-facts-ma'am plot points, this new "Law & Order" season is just like all the others. That makes it a watchable show, not a great one. But it's still not a complaint. At a time when all the broadcast networks are churning out more game and reality shows than scripted series in primetime, the return of the old-fashioned "Law & Order" is a step forward, as well as a nod backward.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. "Law & Order" premiers tomorrow on NBC. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, you may be squeamish about insects, but could humans live in a world without them? Insects play critical roles in pollinating plants we eat, breaking down waste in forest soil and forming the base of a food chain for other animals. Our guest will be environmental writer Oliver Milman, who explores the troubling decline in insect populations in his new book, "The Insect Crisis." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE POST'S "LAW AND ORDER - MAIN THEME")

GROSS: Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering today from Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE POST'S "LAW AND ORDER - MAIN THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.