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by Ben Kromer & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & L & lt;/span & aw and Order is a cop show for nice people. That's not a ringing endorsement for a drama about rape and murder, but it's the best I can come up with. The crimes are serious enough, the actors keep straight faces, and a lot of the storylines are "ripped from the headlines." Together these things are meant to provide the framework for a cop/lawyer drama that's relevant to our grotesque times.

That might have been true a decade and a half ago, when a show about both policemen and lawyers (not just one or the other) must have seemed ingenious. Seventeen years after its premiere, though, every confession, motivation and line of dialogue is something I've heard half a dozen times before. I recognize that there may be a finite number of ways to tearfully confess to having strangled That Filthy Whore. If you've reached that number, though, it's time to quit. There's also a finite number of talented character actors. Most have already appeared on at least one version of the program. At this point, then, mistaking a shrinking talent pool for growing legions of serial criminals is inevitable.

Despite this, a ton of people still watch the show. I think that's because it gives them a safe emotional distance from which to view our scary world (like, "that was horrible, but I watched it and now it's over"). That's what I do, anyway, and in my defense, I don't own a single snuff film. (But only because they're an urban myth.) The closest I get is watching cop shows on cable. For those who don't troll the Internet for pictures (or videos -- thank you, YouTube) of dead people, and who don't like cable-TV realism, NBC provides homicide-lite.

But even the "real-life murder + human behavior 101 = deep cultural insight" formula doesn't hit home anymore (if it ever did). On the contrary, it makes most episodes seem like lame hypothetical law school discussions -- the cops, lawyers and suspects dutifully reciting the most obvious thoughts and opinions about the case at hand. Prosecutor Jack McCoy, then, like a dutiful elder barrister, sums things up for us in an impassioned closing argument. When I want shallow, predictable opinions on jurisprudence from questionable sources, I watch Judge Judy.


TNT has been rerunning NYPD Blue in four-hour blocks late in the middle of the night. Currently it's showing episodes from the tail end of the series, when Sipowitz was softening up and half the detectives looked like models. But it's still superior to all those Law and Order and CSI clones. (Wednesday, 3/21, 2-5 am, TNT)


Jeff Goldblum is Michael Raines, a guy who starts seeing spectral murder victims with his big bug eyes. Then they pester him until he nails their killers. A lot of psychics act like they're tormented by their gift, but since Raines is already a homicide detective, I think his job just got a lot easier. (Thursday, 3/22, 10 pm, NBC)

Andy Barker P.I.

Andy Richter's first sitcom, Andy Richter Controls the Universe can only be found online. His second, family-oriented sitcom wasn't funny. Now he plays an accountant posing as a private eye. We're all on Andy's side. We all want him to succeed. (Thursday, 3/22, 9:30 pm, NBC)

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