With new star, 'Law & Order' retains its sparkle

September 21, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

One of the best dramas on television underwent cosmetic surgery recently, and the bandages are removed tonight.

"Law & Order," back for its fifth season at 10 tonight on WMAR (Channel 2), looks a little different with Sam Waterston Jr. added to the cast in place of the departed Michael Moriarty.

But underneath, the show's heart and soul are unchanged. We move from the crime or death itself to the arrest and filing of charges. Then, it's the appearance of the defense attorney, the strategy on both sides of the courtroom and a verdict, a plea bargain or charges being dropped.

The cases are still taken from the front pages of newspapers. The series is still shot in New York with a semi-gritty realism. And the performances still range from solid to inspiring.

Put Waterston ("I'll Fly Away") in the solid category -- at least for now.

He plays Jack McCoy, an assistant district attorney from the South with a reputation as a ladies' man, a philanderer, a womanizer, a fun-loving Southern boy -- take your pick, depending on your point of view toward such behavior.

Perhaps, because his character in "I'll Fly Away" was so morally conscientious, Waterston is not entirely convincing as a guy who is supposed to have chased women around the office water cooler. "Sexual harassment" is not the first term that comes to mind at the mention of Waterston's name.

The producers have set up Jill Hennessey, who plays assistant district attorney Claire Kincaid, as possibly his next mark -- or, maybe, it will be a mutual love affair.

However it develops, sparks of one kind or another are struck between the two tonight.

Producers tend to do this sort of thing when a series is getting stale, the ratings are slipping or they just want to jump-start a new season. (Remember Mariel Hemingway's nude scene in "Civil Wars" and the deep breathing exercises she and Peter Onorati practiced on her office couch?)

The actual case tonight is fairly intriguing. A teacher collapses in a classroom and, when she's brought to the hospital, she has "the smell of death" about her. One medical attendant passes out, the smell is so noxious.

Was she poisoned? What is the smell? Why is Kincaid suddenly letting her hair down at work? And just how much trouble will McCoy cause in the DA's office? For fans of the show, any one of the four is more than enough reason to tune in. "Law & Order" rolls on.

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