I think we here at PopWatch might have mentioned once or twice in recent months (or thrice, or four times) that we’ve been looking forward to this season’s reboot of NBC’s Law & Order(pictured, left to right, Jesse L. Martin and Jeremy Sisto). For me, though, there’s always been a quiet doubt that’s undercut the anticipation: Are there really enough cast substitutions and conceptual change-ups in the world to revitalize a show that’s been on the air for 18 seasons?

Well, I’m happy to report that the new season of L&O is doing even better than I’d hoped so far. As promised, the plots have been way more nuanced and character-driven than usual. I’m tempted to describe last night’s episode as a small masterpiece — a look at gentrification and urban violence that actually acknowledged the complexity of those issues, believe it or not. The guest characters felt refreshingly like real people facing difficult moral choices. It wasn’t HBO-level genius, okay, but it was miles ahead of the easy, twist-driven melodrama that late-period L&O might have made out of this case as recently as last year.

And the show’s cast has really been stepping up to the challenges ofthese stories. New additions Jeremy Sisto and Linus Roache have broughtL&O the same understated intensity they showed on NBC’s unjustly canceled Kidnappedin fall ’06. Jesse L. Martin is more comfortable patrolling the streetsalongside Sisto than he’s been with any partner since the late, greatJerry Orbach; and Alana de la Garza’s starting to come into her own asRoache’s fellow prosecutor. Up in management, Sam Waterston is bothnewly magisterial and more human than ever after being promoted to headManhattan D.A. And S. Epatha Merkerson has been getting lots of screentime, which is always a good thing — warm and concerned one moment,fearsome and tough as nails the next, she’s good cop and bad cop rolled into one.

All in all, I’ll definitely keep tuning in this season. Who’s with me?