Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Change Isn't Always A Bad Thing

When is a new show not a new show? When it's an old show that is so radically changed that it's not recognizable as the same show that it was previously. Frankly it rarely works but when it does it at least partially rejuvenates a show.

Some of you might remember Murder One. It was an example of a show that radically changed from one season to the next. The series had a central conceit in it's first season - one murder case was the central feature of the show from start to finish - and starred Daniel Benzali as brilliant lawyer Teddy Hoffman. It did well enough for ABC to renew it but heavily modified. Benzali was replaced by Anthony LaPaglia as lawyer Jimmy Wyler, and instead of dealing with a single murder case for the entire season the producers were going to do three or four murders in a season. I don't think that the show with the new format lasted beyond the first murder. Another example was Martial Law. The first season was brilliant with one of the few sour notes being the inclusion of Arsenio Hall as a cast member. It didn't get good ratings and the show was handed over to Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin, who were posting on rec.arts.tv at the time. The gutted the show - tossed out every actor except Sammo Hung, Kelly Hu and Arsenio Hall - and created a sort of mytharc which was so incredibly stupid that even devoted fans were sickened. I swear that if Rabkin and/or Goldberg were standing in front of me at the time I'd have gotten as many good shots as I could and I have the feeling a lot of fans would have done the same thing. As an example of a show that has done it right, I would submit that changing the focus of The West Wing from the Bartlett Presidency to the campaign first for the Democratic nomination and then the Santos vs. Vinnick election has if not rejuvenated the show's ratings then at least making it more interesting to watch (ratings in the Sunday timeslot have fallen to the levels of the now departed American Dreams - I think it would do better than E-Ring or Martha Stewart's Apprentice on Wednesday, but then it's a better show than either).

So what brought this on? Well on Sunday night I watched the "second" first episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. The show's fifth season debut last week featuring Vincent D'Onofrio and Kathryn Erbe as Detectives Goren and Eames. They've been the focus of the series since the beginning - in fact more than any of the other Law and Order series this show has focused on "just" the two leads and particularly on Goren. The original series was split between the two lead detectives and the prosecutors, while Law & Order: Special Victims Unit always had four detectives working the cases. However last season issues surrounding D'Onofrio's health arose (caused by the results of the presidential elections if you were foolish enough to believe the New York Post on this story) and the decision was made to add a second detective team - Detective Mike Logan played by Chris Noth and Detective Carolyn Barak - played by Chris Noth and Annabella Sciorra for half of the episodes this season in order to give D'Onofrio some time off. What began as an effort to help the series star appears as though it will also help the series.

The dynamic in the Logan and Barak episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent is far different than that of the Goren and Eames team. The show belongs to D'Onofrio when he's on screen; Erbe's Detective Eames often seems like an intelligent, level headed Watson to D'Onofrio's brilliant but borderline manic Goren. To stretch the Sherlock Holmes analogy a bit further, Goren has his own personal Moriarty (Professor, not Michael) in the form of Olivia D'Abo's Nicole Wallace. By contrast, Chris Noth's Mike Logan isn't as smart as his new partner but our focus is quite clearly supposed to be on him. For one thing we know him thanks to the fact that the character was part of the original Law & Order series for the first five years of its existence. We know him and we like him. For another thing, while Barak is generally smarter than Logan it isn't the sort of overwhelming brilliance that Goren has over Eames. Barak and Logan's strengths compliment each other. Logan spotted things that Barak missed, and Barak's intelligence allowed them to gain an increased understanding of the crooks. In the climax of Sunday night's episode Barak understood how to work the interrogation of the suspect so that he would implicate his partner (his mother) in a string of murderous jewelry store robberies, but it took Logan and Barak working together to actually break him.

The net result of the addition of Noth and Sciorra to Law & Order: Criminal Intent has added a new dimension to the show. There is a definite contrast between the two teams. Noth in particular is in an interesting situation in that, for the first time Mike Logan is the central figure for his episodes of the show. On Law & Order, Logan was never the central figure. The character was always the junior partner - first to George Dzundza's Max Greevey, then to Paul Sorvino's Phil Cerreta, and finally to Jerry Orbach's Lennie Briscoe - and was usually part of the main action for only about half an hour (less commercials). Inevitably we're going to learn more about Logan. Also inevitably people are going to prefer one team to another, and I can't see that this is necessarily a bad thing. I'm willing to bet that there will be people who don't like D'Onofrio's character (labelled by some as "Detective Twitchy") who are going to watch the show at least part of the time now that Noth has been added to the cast. I don't think that this can't help but do something positive for the show's ratings even when it is going against Desperate Housewives. The show was already worth watching (in my view at least - it's the only show in the Law & Order franchise that I watch) but the new characters may help the show's ratings at least a little. Certainly Sunday night's ratings - which actually saw an increase from 8.3/11 the premiere last week to 9.1/13 for the first Mike Logan episode - indicates that something is at work here.

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