As great as ever–Law & Order is back for 21st season after 12-year break

Review by C.J. Bunce

After a twelve-year break, the best, award-winning police procedural and crime drama is back.  For twenty seasons Law & Order delivered the best “ripped from the headlines” twists and turns, featuring the best shifting casts, long-term regulars, and returning characters.  Its split episode format with two detectives and assistant district attorneys blended the best of all the cop shows before or since with the #1 series ever created about lawyering (it helped get me through criminal procedure in law school two decades ago, and I’ve seen each of its 456 original episodes at least four times).  Well, now the best is back, with a mix of familiar faces and some promising new ones, beginning with this week’s first episode of its 21st season, a twist on the infamous Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein cases.  It’s the return of the best two assistant district attorneys in the history of the show.  And it hasn’t changed a bit–a good thing–like the series kept going after we last watched it way back in 2010.

When we last saw the New York City detectives, the crime-fighting duo was Anthony Anderson’s junior detective Kevin Bernard and Jeremy Sisto’s senior detective Cyrus Lupo, and we saw the retirement of S. Epatha Merkerson’s Lieutenant Anita Van Buren.  The DA’s office was helmed by Sam Waterston’s District Attorney Jack McCoy–the best actor in the best role of the series’ run–with Linus Roache as executive ADA Mike Cutter and Alana de la Garza’s Connie Rubirosa.  For good continuity sake, the new season has Sam Waterson back as McCoy and Anthony Anderson back as Bernard.

Showrunner Dick Wolf also brought back the show’s second best attorney character from the original run, and the #1 best re-creation of real-life lawyering probably ever on the screen.  That’s former Bond girl Carey Lowell as ADA Jamie Ross.  Originally with the prosecutor’s office in the series’ seventh and eighth seasons, her character was obviously loved by the writers and fans, as she returned as a defense attorney in seasons 10 and 11, and she turned judge in two episodes of one of Wolf’s many spin-offs in Law & Order: Trial by Jury.  Now she’s flipped back again to the DA’s office, and could possibly be a recurring character, depending on how McCoy accepts her role in the plot of the season opener.

New actors to the world of Law & Order include familiar Prime Time actress Camryn Manheim as the new lieutenant Kate Dixon, Ella Enchanted’s Hugh Dancy as executive ADA Nolan Price, and Odelya Halevi as ADA Samantha Meroun.  But the big win is the return of Burn Notice star Jeffrey Donovan as Detective Frank Cosgrove.  His New York cop is firmly of the hard-boiled variety, from the Lennie Briscoe school of police work, and he upstages everyone in each scene.  He also seems like he may have studied Jack Webb’s Joe Friday from Dragnet for the role.

The opening case re-establishes the show’s format for any new viewers, and introduces the new characters.  Every new group of four leads took some time to gain their footing, but this group is as promising as any.  Dancy plays his prosecutor a bit wide-eyed and over-the-top, a mix of Linus Roache and Waterston’s early take on McCoy, complete with his arrogance and bravado.  Hopefully he’ll tone it down a bit, or we’ll be watching McCoy squish him in each episode as DAs Schiff and Branch once did to him.

The big question is:  Will Leslie Hendrix’s medical examiner return?  Any of the other characters from past seasons?

It will be difficult for Dick Wolf to go wrong with his tried-and-true format.  Hopefully the writers can keep the series going long into the future once again.  Law & Order was a bit of a public service for a generation of viewers, demonstrating how laws and the legal system works for and against citizens.  What better time to remind Americans of the importance of law and order–and how it all works–than now?  With this first episode of the 21st season, it’s off to a good start.  And fans of Burn Notice will love seeing Donovan back in a different, but familiar, weekly role.  Maybe he can bring Sharon Gless or Bruce Campbell over as a judge.

Quality acting, great writing, and Dick Wolf there to make sure the show features current case law and twists on contemporary events.  Watch Law & Order Thursday nights on NBC, available next day on Peacock.

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