Law & Order executive producer Dick Wolf should be shaking Jay Leno’s hand right now. Last fall, when Leno hogged NBC’s 10 p.m. slot for his doomed primetime show, the network banished Wolf’s 20-year-old procedural to Fridays at 8 p.m.—a.k.a. where TV shows go to die. It was a crime too, because thanks to a multitude of cast revisions (from Anthony Anderson to Linus Roache) and seedy, rippable headlines (the Octomom controversy, the Taconic State Parkway crash) Law & Order was as good as ever. No, it was better.
Then, as we all know, Leno bombed, and the Peacock has moved Law & Order to Mondays. That’s quite a showy spot for a once expendable series, and its makers seem to know it: Twice in the show’s back-to-back two-episode premiere, recurring characters joke about putting their best foot forward, looking five years younger, and trying to be more professional. The lead detectives, Lupo (Jeremy Sisto) and Bernard (Anderson), are freshly shaven. And those silly, pre-credit quips delivered by one of the cops while standing over a corpse before the theme song begins (“Looks like he missed the best shot”) are noticeably, and thankfully, gone.
Instead, we get two of the most horrific crime scenes the series has had to date: four stabbing victims in a family annihilation case and a teenager who’s been set on fire and beaten to death. Both are based on real-life violence recently inflicted on kids by kids (Virginia’s Farmville horrorcore murders and Florida’s video-game debt arson), and both veer unpredictably once the plot gets going—especially number two, which guest stars Debra Winger as a well-meaning public school principal who’s in dangerous denial of her students’ true impulses.
These episodes also uphold the show’s recent trend of slowly and seamlessly exposing the characters’ personal lives. In the last year alone, we’ve learned about Bernard’s love child, enjoyed the oedipal conflict between D.A. Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) and D.A. Mike Cutter (Roache), explored Cutter’s crippling crush on sidekick Connie (Alana De La Garza), and suffered with Lt. Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) through her cancer treatments. It’s cheeky, it’s voyeuristic, and it’s grim. Which is a satisfying way for Law & Order to be after years of trailing behind CSI: NY (where everyone appears to be shagging each other) and spinoff Law & Order: SVU (where everyone appears to be shagging a dead body) without losing what the show’s always been about: 30 minutes of harrowing police investigation followed by 30 minutes of behind-the-court-case drama. In short, the law and the order.