By Ken Tucker
December 11, 2008 at 05:00 AM EST
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Last year, Law & Order franchise operator Dick Wolf made his smartest move in ages by promoting Sam Waterston’s Jack McCoy to district attorney. And now, instead of relegating him to a few token wise-papa scenes (à la such predecessors as Steven Hill and Fred Thompson), Wolf has put snappin’ Jack at the center of some of the best episodes of the immortal series’ 19th season.

Riding herd over a couple of stubborn young bucks — assistant DAs Mike Cutter (sourpuss Linus Roache) and Connie Rubirosa (glamour-puss Alana De La Garza) — McCoy argues, bellows orders, and croaks with outrage when his charges disobey his legal advice. In the season premiere, a macho snit erupted when McCoy overrode Cutter to use a Bush-era terrorism law to go after a bunch of ? amateur street fighters for murder. A week later, scorning one of Cutter’s prosecution arguments, McCoy growled, ”You’re screwed,” with tart, barely disguised pleasure. And ?in the Nov. 19 episode, Rubirosa pointed out to Cutter that in trying to save guest star Jena Malone from being returned to a group of fundamentalist Mormons who’d impregnated her character at age 16, ”you’re doing exactly what Jack told you not to.” And Cutter just nodded with grim glee.

What’s going on here is a nicely overstated case of oedipal conflict. McCoy sees in Cutter his younger, more impetuous self, while? Cutter sees an aging father figure he wants to vanquish by proving he’s smarter and more daring than the old coot. It makes for some superfine debates over points of law that also carry personal, emotional weight for the protagonists, an approach the Law & Order mothership has rarely taken over the years.

As for Order‘s current lawmen, Anthony Anderson’s Det. Kevin Bernard and Jeremy Sisto’s Det. Cyrus Lupo sport identical beards and similarly dour, dogged approaches to criminal apprehension. Both are good actors, but their characters are kinda dull. Oh, for the days of Chris Noth’s hothead Mike Logan and Jerry Orbach’s dry wit Lennie Briscoe!

By contrast, Roache thumbs through law books as though Cutter were searching for a precedent-setting breakthrough every time out. De La Garza is, per the show’s distaff tradition, obliged to have Rubirosa scissor her legs around the DA’s office. But unlike past office trinkets like Angie Harmon (1998?2001) or Elisabeth Röhm (2001?2005), De La Garza also draws your attention to her sarcastically raised eyebrow when she looks at the clashing McCoy and Cutter as if to say, ”Boys, boys — is that a legal brief in your briefs, or are you just glad to see each other?” B+

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