June 04, 2007 at 10:20 PM EDT

Ah, Law & Order. Just when you think you’ve figured out exactly how the carefully choreographed plot will unfold, they come back from commercial break and hit you with another gravity-defying twist. It was only a month ago, after all, that PopWatch editor Gary Susman was begging NBC to put the long-running procedural out of its misery. Though it made my heart grow heavy, I had to agree; after 17 years of ups and downs, the L&O formula was undeniably showing its age. But hold on! All that changed last week, when the show’s producers announced two significant cast updates that just might deliver enough of a jolt to turn this cliffhanger around.

addCredit(“Kidnapped: Will Hart”)

The big news, of course, was that former Republican senator Fred Thompson is leaving his roleas D.A. Arthur Branch after five seasons. On Friday, Thompson announcedhe’d formed a preliminary committee for a presidential run, all butconfirming what everyone’s been whispering: Putting fictional criminalsin jail on TV just doesn’t hold the same allure for Thompson as areal-life shot at the White House. I’m of two minds on his move. On the one hand, Thompson was a solid member of the cast — no Adam Schiff(Steven Hill), to be sure, but a reliable source of cantankerousquotables nonetheless. And given my personal objections to Thompson’spolitical views, I’d hate to have to stop watching reruns from his erabecause of something he said in a debate.

Still, Thompson’s departure could present a real opportunity to revitalize the show. Who should replace him? Some have speculatedthat it’ll be Sam Waterston, and I’m inclined to support that choice.Jack McCoy’s put in more than enough courtroom hours to deserve apromotion, after all, and I’d like to see how he’d use his expandedauthority; plus,sending him to the boss’s office would force the show’sproducers shake things up even further by finding a fresh ADA. (Thenagain, considering that Waterston has been flirting with a real-world political career of his own lately, maybe he’s not the wisest bet.)

But forget Thompson. What really got me excited about L&O again was the newsthat Jeremy Sisto is joining the “Order” side of the cast, playingJesse Martin’s detective partner (and presumably replacing the pastseason’s underwhelming Milena Govich). New York City’s fictionalhoodlums had better watch out — Martin and Sisto are a team that youseriously don’t want to mess with. I always liked Sisto’s turn as thesmarmy Elton in Clueless, and his performance as Six Feet Under‘smenacing sib Billy Chenowith stood out even among that show’s dazzlingensemble; when I realized the same actor had played both of thosedisparate parts, he instantly became one of my favorite characteractors. Sisto has a way of bringing a certain rough-edged, unhingedintensity to any project. If any actor stands a chance at supplying thesurly charisma that L&O‘s been missing since the late,great Jerry Orbach’s departure, it’s him. (One friend of mine suggestedthat Sisto should really be taking Thompson’s role — “He’d be the DAwho gets s— done himself… in jeans!” — but maybe that’s dreamingtoo big.)

Most of all, Sisto’s return to the NBC lineup represents sweet, overdue karmic payback for the inexplicably canceled Kidnapped.I was one of the lonely few who kept watching that show at NBC.com whenit was  pulled from the airwaves after just five episodes last year.What I saw was an intelligent, action-packed thriller that came closerto matching the transfixing quality of HBO’s flagship dramas thanpractically anything else on network television — not least because ofSisto’s incandescent performance as the unorthodox but effective formerFBI agent Lucian Knapp (pictured, with costar Carmen Ejogo). Maybe nowwe’ll finally get a chance to see how Sisto might havedeveloped that complex character past a single season. Now, if onlyJeff Zucker could find steady slots for Delroy Lindo, Timothy Hutton,Dana Delany, and Kidnapped‘s other superlative (and bizarrely unsung) actors…

So, PopWatchers, who do you think should replace Fred Thompson inthe D.A.’s chair? Will you tune in to watch Jeremy Sisto mete out hisbrand of justice? Are there any other desperately necessary castingcalls that L&O‘s producers should have made?

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