It's newfound `Order'

October 02, 2002|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Law & Order starts its 13th season tonight with the debut of Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Republican, as District Attorney Arthur Branch and a ripped-from-the-headlines story about an American Taliban who just might remind some viewers of John Walker Lindh. You have got to hand it to executive producer Dick Wolf - he does not let any rust settle on his franchise series.

Wolf, who has championed the concept of actors as interchangeable parts, wastes not a second of tonight's show explaining the disappearance of Dianne Wiest, who left the series, as District Attorney Nora Lewin. The first time Serena Southerlyn (Elisabeth Rohm) and Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) go to confer with their boss, it's Thompson in the office instead of Wiest, and that's that.

Thompson is no newcomer to acting. He has been in more than two dozen feature films and television series (as a guest star). The films include: The Hunt for Red October, Cape Fear, and Marie: A True Story, based on a case he prosecuted as a state's attorney in Tennessee.

The best thing about Thompson in Law & Order is that he has presence. Part of it is sheer size, but he fills the screen and dominates the scenes in the district attorney's office the way Wiest often did not. The real test for Thompson, though, will be whether he can go toe to toe with Waterston in a big emotional scene and not get blown back to Tennessee. Be nice, Sam.

The worst moments are those featuring Thompson with Rohm. Now, instead of the director just having to work around Rohm, one of television's more limited actresses, you have two of the three characters in the district attorney's office played by performers no one will ever confuse with Jill Hennessy or Steven Hill, the far more talented actors who once inhabited those roles.

You can only push the concept of interchangeability only so far. Rohm and Thompson together in a scene define the absolute limit to which I'm willing to go and still stay every-Wednesday-night loyal to Law & Order.

The season premiere airs at 10 tonight on WBAL (Channel 11).

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