Law & Order Goes West

And also dons a wig in England.

Skeet Ulrich as Detective Rex Winters on Law & Order: Los Angeles

Law & Order: Los Angeles (NBC, Wednesdays at 10 p.m.) rises from the ashes of the canceled original like a synthetic phoenix, its first installment chirping self-consciously about the glitter and the dross of the Golden State. The episode—titled “Hollywood” and generously gratifying low expectations—is ripped from the canary yellow and hot pink headlines of glossy tabloids.

It plunges eagerly into the toxic frappucino of 21st-century celebrity culture, addressing an obvious subject with the thoroughness of someone wanting to get it out of the way. A fictional paparazzi agency stands in for X17, and TMZ stands in for itself. A reality TV star speaks of gaining success “because Perez Hilton called me a ’douche-tard’ every day for six months.” Dumb nightclubs with real names are mentioned alongside fake clubs with plausibly idiotic ones, with a detective asking a starlet, “You ever go to Throb? Cushion? What about way back when Cushion was called Classe?”

The series opens with a convertible whirling toward one such boîte. In a standard L&O set-up, the car’s passengers would simply discover the episode’s first corpse, perhaps approaching a velvet rope and seeing that it has been used to strangle the bouncer. Here, however, the hopped-up camera follows them in. A 20-year-old starlet, chaperoned by a fabulously permissive stage mother, struts forth, receives a hug from the club’s weaselly silver fox of an owner, and is shortly canoodling with a hot young actor named Colin. Meanwhile, back at the actor’s house, a burglar delivers a nasty beating to Colin’s live-in girlfriend, whose misfortune it is to interrupt his workday.

The next morning, Det. Rex Winters enters the picture. Actor Skeet Ulrich brings to the role a talent for understatement not just admirable but essential, given the character’s outsize dourness. Shot from a low angle, Rex literally looms across the scene, and it is immediately evident that he, like Vincent D’Onofrio’s detective on L&O: Criminal Intent, is written to take up all the air in the interrogation room. Steely and leading-man brooding, Rex is balanced by a partner, T.J. Jaruszalski (Corey Stoll), whose bald head and thick moustache conspire to give him the air of a bright and friendly cartoon bird. Like a classic character-actor-type L&O detective, T.J. lets his personality seep up slowly through his cynical cracks. The partners marvel at Colin’s negligence in failing to lock up any of the eight watches stolen from his bedroom. T.J. summarizes, “Two arms, eight Rolexes, and one safe he didn’t use.” Rex mutters, “Genius.” T.J. reminds him, “Actor.” Here, as elsewhere, the show regards performers with the sort of light contempt that works just fine as deep flattery.

The burglary fits a pattern: “Victim is high profile, young Hollywood. No forced entry, no prints.” The scenario is a baroque expansion on the exploits of the Bling Ring, the band of teen thieves who treated themselves to the stockpiled baubles of stars including Lindsay Lohan, Megan Fox, and Paris Hilton, who was apparently gracious enough to leave the door unlocked. The real-life criminals were motivated by celebrity fetishism as much as material gain, but L&O: L.A. displaces kinks of that kind onto the exploitative stage mom. When the storyline twists around such that she is arrested for a related murder, a whole Hollywood pathology is sitting for judgment. The prosecutors on this new show—led by actor Peter Coyote, who hauls loads of Adam Schiff gravel in his voice—are given to putting whole systems on trial, metaphorically and otherwise. Such ambitions help to excuse courtroom scenes so ridiculous that they force millions of viewers to annoy the tens of millions of neighbors who can hear them blurting “objection” at the screen.

Law & Order: U.K.

But perhaps you prefer your Law & Order without flashy grandeur and crafty police work. (Though Rex and T.J. do, in fact, dig for clues, it somehow feels that they’re just watching them erupt.) If this is the case, I prescribe the first season of Law & Order: UK (BBC America, debuts Sunday at 10:30 p.m. ET), which originated on ITV and which has the advantage of being adapted directly from vintage L&O scripts, as opposed to laboring in the shadow of them. On Sunday’s episode, modeled on a number from the Ben Stone era, detectives Ronnie Brooks and Matt Devlin trace the corpse of an abandoned baby back to the mother’s flat, with its poisonous carbon-monoxide levels and strategically neglectful landlords. The writing is as crisp as Brooks’ perfect raincoat, and the partners share a father-son chemistry unseen elsewhere in the franchise, and anyone exhibiting the faintest traces of Anglophilia will delight to see the crown prosecutor and the defense counsel talking trash in the changing room while donning and doffing their barristers’ wigs.

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