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TV review: ‘Law & Order’ is back, and it’s still crime drama as comfort food

Sam Waterston and Anthony Anderson reprise their roles, with some new faces in the cast.

(Virginia Sherwood | NBC) Camryn Manheim as Lieutenant Kate Dixon, Anthony Anderson as Detective Kevin Bernard and Jeffrey Donovan as Detective Frank Cosgrove in "Law & Order."

Almost a dozen years after it went off the air, “Law & Order” returns Thursday at 7 p.m. on NBC/Ch. 5. And it’s pretty much exactly the same show it was for 20 years and 456 episodes. It’s still about “the police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders.”

Sam Waterston (seasons 5-20) returns as District Attorney Jack McCoy. And Anthony Anderson, whose sitcom “Black-ish” is airing its final episodes on ABC, returns as Det. Kevin Bernard (seasons 18-20). Bernard has a new partner (Jeffrey Donovan), and they have a new boss (Camryn Manheim).

There’s a new prosecutor (Hugh Dancy) and a new second-chair prosecutor (Odelya Halevi).

But the format remains the same. Including the ripped-from-the-headlines stories, although the headline the first new episode is ripped from isn’t exactly new.

A once-hugely popular Black singer, who has been convicted of at least one of the 30-plus rapes of which he was accused, has been freed from prison on a technicality. He professes his innocence, right up until he’s shot dead.

It is, of course, the Bill Cosby case, but with a fatal shooting added. And the real-but-not-real cases remain “the core of the narratives of this show year in, year out,” Waterston said. “And, boy, are there a lot of stories that need telling.”

And it’s still about the crimes, with just a few glimpses into the personal lives of the detectives and the lawyers.

Anderson said that “the magic” of “Law & Order” because it “allows you to pick up this show at any given moment, at any given time no matter where you are and still be that much invested in this show and still not be lost.”

(Eric Liebowitz |NBC) Hugh Dancy as ADA Nolan Price and Odelya Halevi as ADA Samantha Maroun in "Law & Order."

He’s right about that. Each episode is self-contained, as has been the case since it premiered in 1990.

Thursday’s Season 21 premiere also reflects the new reality when it comes to policing. The detectives clash when it comes to how they handle the job, and the Black detective tries to get the white detective to back off a bit. There’s also a considerable disagreement between the cops and the prosecutors about how they do their jobs.

In the tradition of “Law & Order,” it’s as much a morality play as it is a crime drama. And both the policing and the lawyering in the episode are fanciful at best. A judge I know finds the lawyering in this episode to be ludicrous.

But it’s not a documentary. It’s entertainment. It’s TV comfort food, and the people who loved it are going to be pleased.

(Michael Greenberg | NBC) Sam Waterston as District Attorney Jack McCoy in "Law & Order."

Creator/executive producer Dick Wolf — who’s cranky on a good day — was ticked off when NBC canceled it, and he’s been mad ever since. “For 11 years, it was my dream that one day the show would return and break the 20-season tie with ‘Gunsmoke,’” Wolf wrote in a statement sent to TV critics.

A couple of clarifications here. First, “Law & Order: SVU,” (23 seasons, 506 episodes and counting) has already surpassed “Gunsmoke” in total number of seasons. Both trail “The Simpsons,” now in its 33rd season.

And, second, both “Law & Order” (456 episodes and counting) and “SVU” are well behind both “Gunsmoke” (635) and “The Simpsons” (717 and counting) in total number of episodes.

Wolf said he was in talks with Universal and NBC (both owned by Comcast) for seven years about bringing “Law & Order” back, and that those talks “heated up” in 2020, during the pandemic.

“I don’t think he’s ever stopped talking about it,” Waterston said. “One of the reasons that we’re back is because of his persistence and determination, and his complete conviction that it was a terrible mistake to stop in the first place.”

It’s worth pointing out that NBC canceled “Law & Order” because the ratings were in steep decline. But Waterston wasn’t wrong when he said, “We stopped making the shows, but the audience never stopped watching them” — in reruns.

It’s back. Enjoy.