After a desperately needed Olympic interlude, NBC gets back this week to the down-and-dirty business of trying to recover from the debacle of moving Jay Leno to prime time in September. Mercifully, the Vancouver Games, which end tonight, took the minds of many viewers off the NBC decision that sent a bloodied Leno back to 11:35 p.m. starting Monday, while Conan O'Brien was sent off to a very early $40 million retirement earlier this month.
Of all the things that the beleaguered network must do the minute the Olympic flame is extinguished, nothing is more important than re-establishing itself as a viable viewing option at 10 p.m. weeknights, so that affiliates like Baltimore's WBAL-TV have at least a fighting chance to compete in late local news again.
With that imperative come a number of intriguing story lines, starting with the sneak preview tonight of executive producer Jerry Seinfeld's reality-contest show, "The Marriage Ref," which will air Thursdays at 10. The other big-name, highly promoted new 10 o'clock series, Ron Howard's "Parenthood," premieres Tuesday.
But for all the emphasis on what's new and untested, the most compelling story line to me is the return of "Law & Order" to 10 p.m. Mondays and the network's belief that this venerable crime series can still deliver the dramatic goods after two decades on the air. Despite huge changes in network TV and viewing habits during the past 20 years, I think NBC is right on this one.
I base that claim in part on the episode titled "Boy on Fire," which will air Monday. I was stopped in my tracks by the work of two of the guest stars who appear in it - Golden Globe winner Debra Winger and Aaron Grady Shaw, a teenager from Perry Hall.
Winger plays the principal of a troubled inner-city high school, while Shaw plays a middle-school student who is trying to earn his way into a new charter high school in the neighborhood. Both become caught up in a police investigation when a top student from the charter school who had been tutoring Shaw is killed.
Winger's performance as a complicated, ambitious and stressed-out public school educator would, by itself, make tuning in worthwhile.She keeps adding little bits of edge and neuroses to the principal until the woman feels more like a character in a novel than a guest star during her 10 minutes or so of air time.
But Shaw's performance is the one that got me thinking. Like other critics, I was blown away by his work last season in HBO's "In Treatment." He had a recurring role in that series as one of the four weekly patients of the analyst played by Gabriel Byrne. Shaw played a teenager who suffered from eating and anxiety disorders as his self-absorbed parents bickered and battled their way into divorce.
As I watched Shaw in the new "Law & Order" role, it occurred to me how much HBO had borrowed from Wolf in terms of the rich tone and wise sensibility of series like "In Treatment." And in a practical sense, just as Wolf successfully tapped the acting and writing talent in the New York theater world, so has HBO to create that multidimensional depth.
And I couldn't help but be struck by the irony that if "Law & Order" had appeared on HBO instead of NBC and run for 20 years, critics would be genuflecting before it today instead of mostly taking it for granted as it goes on to become the longest-running drama series in the history of television. (It is tied with the landmark Western series "Gunsmoke" this year, and with renewal already announced by NBC, it is just a matter of time before it holds the title alone.)
Most of all, I was reminded how brave this series has always been not only in tackling controversial topics, but also in taking on complicated ones - and daring to explore answers that do not always fall perfectly within the politically correct boundaries of most mainstream network TV drama.
As it has always been, Wolf's first order of business in "Boy on Fire" is to serve up an urban whodunit, a modern-day murder-mystery with Detectives Kevin Bernard (Anthony Anderson) and Cyrus Lupo (Jeremy Sisto) methodically trying to solve the crime under the direction of Lt. Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson).
And then comes the punishment part, with Linus Roache, as the Young Turk of an assistant district attorney, butting heads with the older, wiser and more world-weary DA, Jack McCoy, played by Sam Waterston.
But beyond the classic pleasures of watching those ancient formulas play out in a TV format, Monday night's "Boy on Fire" episode takes viewers inside the politics of big-city public school education while offering an eye-opening look at the way charter schools can become both beacons of hope and triggers of despair for different children in the same impoverished neighborhoods.
I have long loved this series, and have spent some of the most exciting days and nights of my career on its New York soundstages reporting on how it's made and interviewing those who make it - particularly Dick Wolf.
As I wrote in a 2003 profile, "With his original 'Law & Order' series, Wolf hit upon a way to meet network demands for profit while creating compelling and intelligent television drama. Against a backdrop of reality shows that seem to become dumb and dumber by the day or comedies that rarely deviate from prescribed plots, he produces a steady stream of shows that are unafraid to tackle contemporary social issues, controversial or not. And, in the process, his work has become nearly ubiquitous."
That might not be art. But in the world of commercial, prime-time, network television, it is close enough. In fact, it might be as good as it gets.
Two episodes of "Law & Order" will air at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. Monday on WBAL-TV