Monday, October 4, 2010

Whatever LoLa Wants: The New Face Of Law & Order

The familiar cha-chung sound is there to accompany the inter-titles that separate scenes, but Law & Order: Los Angeles, which premiered September 29 on NBC, seems to be a breed apart in the pantheon of creator Dick Wolf. This certainly is not a carbon copy of the groundbreaking original show -- just plain Law & Order -- now gone after 20 years on the same network. For one thing, composer Mike Post’s distinctive theme music over the opening credits is missing. Ditto for the ubiquitous verbal introduction. And the look of LoLa, as it has been dubbed, is almost shocking. Longtime fans of the Mother Ship, which is what everyone calls the now-defunct drama, and of the two New York City spin-offs, Special Victims Unit and Criminal Intent, may need to wear shades. Tinseltown is a place of bright sunlight and spacious homes in fashionable hues unknown to the gritty five boroughs, where cramped apartments, dark alleyways, shadowy streets, vacant buildings and menacing parks have been a mainstay of all three prime time cops-and-courts series. Unlike the dingy digs in those L&Os, the LA squad room is disconcertingly sleek and modern.

All previous Wolf productions have been bicoastal, with writers and editors near the Pacific Ocean some 3,000 miles away from thespians and crew on the Atlantic seaboard, but an Empire State of Mind (Thank you, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys!) invariably ruled the setting. The new dynamic is entirely within the glaring Southern California milieu, where the police, prosecutors, perps, witnesses, judges and defense lawyers don’t appear to be quite as edgy as their Big Apple counterparts. Skeet Ulrich (Jericho), who plays a young, straight-laced detective named Rex Winters, is rather bland in contrast with Tomas “T.J.” Jaruszalski (Corey Stoll), as his mustachioed and slightly sardonic partner in the Robbery-Homicide Division. But the latter is no Lenny Briscoe, Jerry Orbach’s indelible cynic, and the duo has not yet demonstrated the crime-fighting chemistry supplied by Jeremy Sisto and Anthony Anderson during the last two seasons aboard the Mother Ship.

Terribly miscast, Alfred Molina gives Deputy District Attorney Ricardo Morales -- not Assistant District Attorney, the job title in Manhattan -- an almost creepy demeanor. Perhaps that’s why his colleague, Evelyn Rice (Regina Hall), is rarely around. So far, Morales has a less ruminative nature than Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) or Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty), the complex characters who, in succession, provided the Mother Ship with prosecutorial passion for two decades. In the future, we’ll meet District Attorney Jerry Hardin (Peter Coyote), and alternate-week Deputy DAs Jonah “Joe” Dekker (Terrence Howard) and Lauren Gardner (Megan Boone). Rachel Ticotin eventually will be on tap as Lieutenant Arleen Gonzales. For now, we can only assume she’s with the LAPD and hope her presence is as riveting as that of Lieutenant Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) on L&O, Captain Don Cragen (Dann Florek) on SVU or Captain Danny Ross (Eric Bogosian) on CI.

But, as ever, these are their stories, so the first LoLa episode, “Hollywood,” begins with the killing of a young woman during a home-invasion burglary. The investigation soon leads to celebrities, including a hard-partying, Lindsay Lohan-type starlet and her calculating mother, who are associated with a “bling ring” that steals jewelry from the fabulously rich and famous. In real life, these people currently are so overexposed by the media that there’s a sense of been-there, done-that. Granted, the ripped-from-the-headlines approach has always implied familiarity, but back in the day the public was bombarded by fewer sources of communication. The 24-hour news cycle of cable TV and endless online options render the fictionalization of any big scandal almost instantly ho-hum. If so, blame it on the boss. Blake Masters’ teleplay is based on a story by Dick Wolf, who also wrote the 1988 Mother Ship pilot, “Everybody’s Favorite Bagman,” that remained unseen until broadcast in 1990 as the sixth episode in Season One.

Next up: On October 6, “Echo Park” reportedly will focus on a murderously insane group resembling the Manson Family. That was so 1969, but – to be fair – the recent tribulations (without trial) of Roman Polanski may have rekindled interest in the era of Helter Skelter. Executive Producer Rene Balcer, a Montreal native old enough to remember those times, is a veteran showrunner of various other Wolf programs and has been handed the reigns for LoLa. He’s joined by Christopher Misiano, a co-executive producer who got his start as a camera operator with the first L&O in 1991. In that these guys are super-smart and talented, the series could evolve with more subtlety and gravitas than is evident at the moment. Viewers might mistake the debut episode’s focus on a notoriously shallow demographic as an indication that the show itself is shallow. With any luck, they will come to understand that gangs, drug dealers, drug burn-outs, hardworking citizens without health insurance, greedy bankers overseeing foreclosures, employers that exploit illegal immigrants and a multitude of homeless folks also populate the City of Angels.

Another promising sign for LoLa is the imprint of casting director Lynn Kressel, who has been with the franchise -- which Wolf prefers to call a brand -- since the beginning. She’s always chosen gifted guest stars from the vast pool of New York theater actors. It remains to be seen if Los Angeles can yield a similar bounty. Or will their noses, skin and teeth be too perfect, their measurements anorexic? Are we in for a beautiful-people Botox bonanza? Even more crucial, is it possible for subtle performances to grace our Wednesday night excursions to the bastion of glitzy make-believe? Cha-chung. Stay tuned.

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

1 comment:

  1. Molina is a failure. Corey Stoll shines. The human element moves forward with the SVU moment in touch with LoLa re: archive files (last week). But did we need some material about Jericho's wife? Spare me..Peter Coyote is pretty good, though, but then he always is.

    Considering what else is on TV, LoLa is ok for awhile. It'll have a full season to establish itself.