Bring back the banter! For those of us who’ve watched countless classic “Law & Order” episodes over its first 20 seasons (1990-2010), the question is whether the 21st — a reboot premiering Thursday after more than a decade off the air — will satisfy fans? With its mix of established cast members and new faces led by the indomitable 81-year-old Sam Waterston as D.A. Jack McCoy, and time-worn format, how can it fail? Dick Wolf’s baby has never jumped the shark and, while this new series doesn’t break new ground, it briskly covers the metropolitan landscape that we love, and sometimes love to hate.
The relaunched season opens with a solid #MeToo episode, “Free Speech,” that would feel at home on “Law and Order: SVU.” A well-known middle-aged Black man served time in prison for multiple rapes, always protesting his innocence. Once released on a technicality, he returns to his wife and, remorseless, prepares to reenter his libido-driven life. Not so fast. He’s the corpse before the cutaway. As the female cop on the scene drily informs her detective partner, “Four to the chest and one to the groin — it doesn’t look like robbery either.”
New detective on the block Frank Cosgrove (“Burn Notice” alum Jeffrey Donovan) makes his flame-thrower white guy entrance with this beauty: “The over-under on this guy was nine months.” He’s an old-school cop struggling to wear the badge in the defund-the-police era where his actions are under greater scrutiny.
Returning to the show and his character Detective Kevin Bernard, Anthony Anderson retorts: “Every victim deserves respect….even the ones that raped 40 women.” In Wolf shorthand, we immediately know these men. They’re two cops in the early, anti-honeymoon phase of their partnerships, which is rocky, suspicious and racially tense. At one point, Bernard tells Cosgrove that they’ve been partners for “two months — that makes us the longest relationship I’ve had in six years.” While the two detectives are still rough around the edges, sometimes overpunching lines, this should smooth out over the long haul. Donovan, who often plays lead in past shows, will have to meld into the character actor ensemble. Anderson, his forehead corrugated with worry, makes a welcome return to drama after his sitcom “blackish.”
On the Order side, Waterston has entered Steven Hill’s D.A. Adam Schiff territory — crotchety, cautious, Solomonic and largely seated. The actor appears frailer of body, his eyes watery, his voice even more pinched – but he’s strong enough to anchor this series, connecting the past and present. While D.A. McCoy has risen since he debuted in 1990, he’s still fighting for justice within the system – and fielding arrogant young newbies who resemble his younger self. Enter Executive Assistant District Attorney Nolan Price (the ever-reliable, boyish Hugh Dancy of “Hannibal” and “Homeland”).
The jury is out on Camryn Manheim as Lt. Kim Dixon, who steps behind the desk where she-boss S. Epatha Merkerson once held discreet phone calls with her cancer doctors while marshaling her force. In the first episode, Manheim serves as a bit of a screenwriter mouthpiece, delivering fail-safe lines like, “I’m not in the mood for politics” to preempt controversy. Odelya Halevi, as A.D.A. Samantha Maroun, looks promising, hovering at the edges until she nails a moving closing argument.
“Law & Order” has always been a show that captures the New York zeitgeist, and this iteration struggles to be bold in the era of micro-aggressions and increasing polarization. A little like Donovan’s Cosgrove, it’s afraid to be pilloried for speaking incorrectly even while in pursuit of the bad guys.
Leave it to Donovan’s outspoken newcomer to school Dancy’s privileged attorney about what’s essential to the series: “I catch ’em, you cook ’em, that’s how this is supposed to work.” While the premiere remains a little underbaked, if the past is prelude, the show will soon be cooking.
Following the final verdict, the camera cuts from Price descending the courthouse steps to the building’s inscription: “Administration of justice is the firmest pillar of good.” That’s a foundational principle that resonates with a larger audience pulling for the power of the New York courts, on the small screen and the national stage.
“Law & Order” debuts on NBC on February 24.