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Andrew Ryan: Television

Law and Order: Los Angeles is back - but for how long? Add to ...

In the TV justice system, the people have no say whatsoever in the fate of a program. Go ahead, call your lawyer.

In case you hadn't noticed, Law & Order: Los Angeles (NBC, CTV, 10 p.m.) slipped quietly back into prime time last Monday night. Anyone who followed the latest entry in the L&O franchise the first time around last fall might have wondered if they were watching the same program.

To rewind briefly, Law & Order: Los Angeles - long ago dubbed LOLA by some clever NBC publicity wag - arrived during the normal fall launch period last September. In keeping with previous L&O spinoffs, the format was split between the cops investigating a particular criminal act and the district attorneys tasked to prosecute the case. In Canada and the United States , Law & Order: Los Angeles drew healthy, if not spectacular, ratings.

But then, a four-month commercial break. For reasons unrevealed, NBC yanked the show in early December for "retooling," which in modern TV parlance most often means "complete makeover."

Naturally, it's in the network prerogative to change a show, but the revamped version of Law & Order: Los Angeles was bizarre. Out of the blue, the prosecutor Ricardo Morales, played by the fine actor Alfred Molina, announced he was fed up with the bureaucracy of the district attorney's office, and was returning to his former rank of LAPD detective. And then, presto, Morales was suddenly wearing a badge again and packing heat (in an episode with elements Canadian viewers would have recognized from the former colonel Russell Williams case).Another strange change: The abrupt execution of Detective Rex Winters, played by Skeet Ulrich - supposedly the show's primary star - by the gunsels of a drug lord. Even by current TV standards, the character's murder was violent and unseemly. Could the show's writers not have simply transferred him? Either way, his departure efficiently made way for Morales.

There were other changes on the new Law & Order: Los Angeles, some more irritating than others.

Last fall, reviewers repeatedly cited the performance of TV journeyman Corey Stoll as cynical Detective T.J. Jaruszalski. In most episodes, Jaruszalski had the sharpest dialogue, much the way the late Jerry Orbach's TV cop Lenny Briscoe had the best lines on the original Law & Order. During the show's original run, he was the cop to watch.

The new Jaruszalski appeared subdued, and not just because his partner had been killed. Whereas Jaruszalski was once on equal billing with Winters, he now seemed more of a support player. Worse yet, he had shaved off his impressive mustache, which was practically a character in itself.

NBC's payoff for all the changes to Law & Order: Los Angeles? Fewer viewers. When it went off the air last December, the show was averaging about 10 million U.S. viewers. Last week's return pulled in slightly less than six million U.S. viewers.

If Law & Order: Los Angeles does tank, that's more bad fortune for NBC, and how the mighty have fallen.

Less than a decade ago, NBC's scheduled boasted ratings magnets such as ER, Friends, Seinfeld and Frasier. But those shows have come and gone. And then came last season's ill-fated experiment to install Jay Leno in the 10 p.m. timeslot. Everyone knows how that turned out.

Today, NBC is firmly mired in fourth place among commercial U.S. networks - following Fox, ABC and CBS. In recent years, the only ratings excitement from NBC has come from reality hits such as The Biggest Loser and The Apprentice. Law & Order: Los Angeles was a program designed to help give the peacock network back a few feathers, but it's not working out that way.

What went wrong? Might as well get the analysis out of the way now, since by Wednesday of last week, most TV industry analysts were already predicting NBC would cancel the show next month.

Take your pick as to why Law & Order: Los Angeles has so far failed to find an audience. Beyond the network tweaks and meddling, it could be that viewers subconsciously compared the show with earlier entries in the franchise. Or possibly it was because viewers don't like the idea of an L&O show set in the sunny climes of Los Angeles, instead of the mean streets of New York.

Based on the successes of previous Law & Order spinoffs Special Victims Unit and Criminal Intent, it's quite possible the current crop of NBC executives believed that any show with the imprimatur of L&O creator Dick Wolf was a slam dunk. They should have checked his résumé.

Back in 2005, the Wolf-created series Law & Order: Trial by Jury garnered woefully dismal ratings. One 13-episode run, that was it. Even lower-rated was Wolf's 2006 series Conviction, which placed characters from SVU in a legal drama premise. It lasted three months.

When the final postmortem does happen, it will likely reveal Law & Order: Los Angeles was simply a case of bad timing and the wrong setting.

Network television currently has an abundance of crime procedural programs, with three CSIs, two L&Os, two Criminal Minds, two NCISs and even a remake of Hawaii Five-O.

The mainstream viewing audience that drives Nielsen ratings is deeply disdainful of anything that smacks of show business and Hollywood - the modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah, to many Americans. Crime and punishment in L.A.? Deal with it.

Check local listings.

John Doyle returns on April 25.

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