The series that has made the smoothest transition with a new costar is Law & Order, whose quality has, if anything, improved in its second season. When it was announced that Paul Sorvino would replace George Dzundza as the show’s old-pro cop, I winced: Sorvino was so showily grand as a Mafia don in GoodFellas that I wondered whether he’d be able to tone it down for the quiet intensity that characterizes Law & Order at its best.

I shouldn’t have worried. Sorvino, somber yet kindly-eyed, manages to be both a tough, terse cop and the sort of sympathetic, idealistic character that this beautifully cynical series can use to deepen and enrich its drama. The show has always told its stories from the point of view of its legal-system protagonists, and so, after Dzundza was killed off in the season’s first episode, we spent the next few weeks in the same position as Chris Noth’s Detective Logan — getting used to Sorvino’s Det. Phil Cerreta, this new guy in the squad car, a different partner in crime solving.

Respectful and wary of each other at first, Logan and Cerreta have settled into a comfortable alliance; when they disagreed on the significance of a crime clue recently, their staccato quarrel moved Captain Cragan (Dann Florek) to remark, ”What’s this? What’s this? The honeymoon is over?” For the viewer, though, it’s just begun; the series’ Oct. 8 episode, with Matthew Cowles giving an exceptional performance as a mentally disturbed street person, was easily the best hour of TV drama so far this season.A-

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