A Soap in Wolf’s Clothing

Illustration by Anders Mutzenbächer/Ateliér 444Photo: Courtesy of NBC

Not counting reruns—which are, of course, incessant, as if there were a Law & Order network unto itself—the last time we saw Stephanie March dressed up as Alexandra Cabot, she was pretending to be dead. The thin, cool, blonde assistant district attorney with vengeance in her heart and mercury in her veins had just discovered, during an especially violent episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, that there was a hit out on her. I can’t recall now which nut jobs wanted her whacked or why, whether they were Russian mafiosi, Latin American drug lords, Middle Eastern terrorists, or kiddie-porn child slavers. But they were serious enough to scare Alex into early retirement. And you wouldn’t have thought anybody could scare Alex, in whom a runway model’s cat’s-paw grace combined with the ferocity of Boudicca.

Well, Stephanie/Alex is back in Conviction, as the bureau chief of a bunch of hot-bodied coed assistant D.A.’s. As usual, all of them ultimately report to the higher authority of Dick Wolf, the Executive Producer Who Giveth and Taketh Away. Dann Florek, kicked off the original Law & Order to make room for S. Epatha Merkerson, was allowed to return in the Special Victims spinoff. Chris Noth was brought back part-time from Staten Island for Criminal Intent, to keep us from throwing stones and fetishes at the blowfish face of Vincent D’Onofrio. Jill Hennessy’s Claire Kincaid perished in a car crash after her first capital-punishment case; Michael Moriarty might as well be dead as far as Wolf’s concerned; and Jerry Orbach actually is. Richard Brooks and Carey Lowell have reappeared, and some of us still hope once more to hear Angie Harmon’s husky scotch-malt voice. I have a theory about Wolf’s revolving door, but to explain it would require a long detour into those Manichaean and Gnostic heresies in which seraphim must reassemble the broken body of the original Adam to recover the hidden light.

Instead, let’s just say that no one on any Law & Order has been closer than Stephanie’s Alex to the original spirit of Moriarty’s Ben Stone. Whether working a Mayflower Madam bust, a Tawana Brawley scam, a Happy Land after-hours arson, or a Malcolm X assassination, Stone was an avenging angel and a Robespierre. Likewise, Alex seemed a full-time Hound of Heaven, all duty and no life. Whereas the kids in Conviction have so much private life you wonder if you wandered into a Scream movie by mistake. Why has Jordan Bridges left private practice? How could Julianne Nicholson misplace the drug evidence in her first court appearance? Shouldn’t Eric Balfour at least remember the name of the woman in whose bed he left his badge?

Backstories and “relationships” used to be anathema to Wolf, yet the very first hour of Conviction ends in a sweaty bed with the insinuation that office sex, coke in condoms, and death on Mott Street may all be related. This is preferable to the usual Law & Order impatience with those very scruples that distinguish our legal system from Enver Hoxha’s or Robert Mugabe’s—the contempt for hairsplitting judges, pettifogging defense lawyers, bleeding-heart social workers, and other professional tear ducts. But I am also reminded, and not in a good way, of the short-lived ABC series Equal Justice, in which young prosecutors impersonated by such Tinkertoys and Erector Sets as Sarah Jessica Parker, James Wilder, Jane Kaczmarek, Joe Morton, Debrah Farentino, and Jon Tenney used the Pittsburgh criminal-justice system to improve their muscle tone. Alex, a righteous sword with horn-rims and high heels, will have to spend a part of every hectic day reminding these horn dogs what they’re here for.

Also making a welcome return, albeit not until later this month, is Andre Braugher, whose six seasons on Homicide made television seem briefly like a swell idea. In Thief, another stylish noir from the dark-hearted cable guys who gave us The Shield, Braugher works the other side of the crime line, robbing banks with an unstable gang that includes Malik Yoba, Yancey Arias, Clifton Collins Jr., and a drug addict who will not survive the series pilot. Linda Hamilton, of all people, launders this gang’s money and settles its scores. The only hour available for preview spent so much time setting up subplots—Michael Rooker as a corrupt cop, Will Yun Lee as a Chinese-Mafia hit man, and the wonderful Dina Meyer (a favorite of mine since Starship Troopers) rubbed out in a furious blink—that we don’t yet know if Thief will go anywhere surprising. But mostly we are watching Braugher, who has more happening in his head than is ever dreamed of in all prime time, who complicates us like great art.

With Law & Order, Dick Wolf hatched a durable franchise. But his similarly themed—and similarly titled—efforts have been more famine than feast. Here’s a recap:
Law & Order Sixteen seasons (and counting).
Law & Order: SVU Eight seasons (and counting).
Law & Order: Criminal Intent Five seasons (and counting).
Crime & Punishment Two seasons.
Dragnet Two seasons.
Arrest & Trial One season.
Players Eighteen episodes.
Law & Order: Trial by Jury Thirteen episodes.
Deadline Twelve episodes.

NBC. Premieres Friday, March 3, 10 p.m.

F/X. Premieres Tuesday, March 28, 10 p.m.

A Soap in Wolf’s Clothing