Bruce Fretts looks at the Emmy-winning show's future in the wake of the star's decision to quit

Benjamin Bratt’s departure won’t hurt ‘Law & Order’

So Benjamin Bratt’s leaving ”Law & Order.” Big deal! Okay, I guess it is to some fans — he’s clearly the show’s biggest heartthrob since Chris Noth, whom he replaced as Jerry Orbach’s junior NYPD partner. The thing is, though, Bratt was never as compelling of a presence as Noth.

As Det. Rey Curtis, Bratt was brought in four years ago to stir up tension with Orbach’s Det. Lennie Briscoe. Producers supposedly felt like the team of Briscoe and Noth’s Det. Mike Logan had become too buddy-buddy. (Of course, the off-screen clashes between Noth and series creator Dick Wolf might have had something to do with the actor’s departure, too.) But Curtis and Briscoe quickly became simpatico, making Noth’s exit seem all the more pointless.

Bratt’s a perfectly competent actor — he’s much more natural, for example, than stiff-as-a-board Carey Lowell, who has gracefully been replaced by the fiery Angie Harmon as the show’s resident sex-bomb assistant district attorney this season. But while Bratt chose to let his sensuality simmer, Noth exploded off the screen. Loose cannon Mike Logan was simply more fun to watch than cool cat Rey Curtis.

Wolf seemed to realize his mistake when he mended fences with Noth and made a TV movie, ”Exiled,” with him reprising his role as Logan last season. The film did surprisingly well for NBC in the ratings, so don’t be surprised if we see more Mike Logan movies.

We may not have seen the last of Rey Curtis, either. Bratt says he would like to reappear occasionally on ”L &O.” His stated reason for leaving is that he wants to ”spend more time with his family,” which is odd since he’s not married and doesn’t have any children. But he is dating Julia Roberts — who just guest-starred on the drama’s 200th episode — so you can’t blame the guy for wanting more free time.

Don’t worry, ”Law & Order” fans: The show will go on. As has often been noted, the actors aren’t the stars of this series, the stories are. In its nine seasons, the Emmy-winning NBC drama has seen its entire original cast turn over (indispensable DA Steven Hill didn’t join until the second episode), and the show just gets bigger and better.

Plus, Bratt’s replacement, Jesse L. Martin, has been one of the very few reasons to watch ”Ally McBeal” this season. As Ally’s on-again, off-again doctor boyfriend, he cooked up chemistry with the chilly Calista Flockhart, so Jerry Orbach should be no problem.

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