After a month of seeing way too many new series that don't work, will never work, and ought to be taken back by the networks and put out of their misery, what a pleasure it is to witness the return an old familiar formula in which almost everything seems a perfect fit.
That's the experience I had watching the 11th season premiere of NBC's "Law & Order," the longest-running drama series currently on network television. Even though producer Dick Wolf seems to re-cast a major player every season, the series just rolls on, hardly missing a beat. It's like the Minnesota Vikings' offense with coach Dennis Green changing quarterbacks.
The big news this year is Dianne Weist, a two-time Oscar winner, joining the cast as Nora Lewin, the new district attorney. She replaces 78-year-old Steven Hill, who has been with the show since season one as Adam Schiff.
Wolf can't resist a little razzle-dazzle connected to Weist's arrival tonight: He has New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani introduce Lewin to her staff, just as Giuliani might if she were Manhattan's real district attorney arriving for her first day on the job. This series is so good it can even stand this silly, show-biz interlude.
Don't expect fireworks from Weist tonight. Like a veteran ballplayer, she knows enough to let the game come to her instead of trying to make a splash in her first at bat. The fascinating thing about her low-key performance tonight is not what she says or does but rather what she manages to suggest might be going on inside Lewin's head as she interacts with Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) and Abbie Carmichael (Angie Harmon).
The very last scene will leave you wondering whether McCoy might not be headed for big trouble with his new boss who seems like she just might be gender-biased in favor of Carmichael. If that's true, won't that make for a lovely undercurrent of tension and possible power shift in the office this season.
The main story line involves the death of a severely retarded boy in an apartment fire. It doesn't take Detectives Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) and Edward Green (Jesse L. Martin) long to zero in on the boy's young mother as the prime suspect. But that's only the start of the story; the great thing about "Law & Order" is how quickly the clear waters of suspicion turn muddy. This is a television series that not only acknowledges moral ambiguity, but also savors it.
The best moments tonight are in the courtroom, as the prosecutors find themselves up against one of the most obnoxious defense attorneys we've seen in years. By the time he smiles his smug, self-assured, pretty-boy smile and tells Carmichael that he approves of the high heels she's wearing, you'll want to strangle him.
And, then, there's the expert for the defense, a talk show host who calls herself doctor and offers psychological advice despite the fact that her academic degree is in kinesiology. Wolf slows the bang-bang courtroom pace to let McCoy slowly shred this barely disguised version of Laura Schlessinger.
I loved the moral authority, wisdom, grumpiness and veteran savvy of Schiff. I don't see Lewin bringing any of those characteristics with her, and I'm sure I'll miss them.
But, after 10 years of wondering how Wolf could ever replace Paul Sorvino or Michael Moriarty, I have become a believer. When it comes to "Law & Order," my new motto: In Dick I trust.
Law & Order'
What: 11th season premiere
When: Tonight at 10.
Where: WBAL (Channel 11).
In brief: She's not Adam Schiff, but the new DA already has me intrigued.