We need to talk about the Bill Cosby plot device torn from the headlines for the premiere of the “Law & Order” (7 p.m., NBC, TV-14) revival.
The original series that spawned a franchise returns for its 21st season after a hiatus of some 12 years. Changes in technology, society and the perceptions of the criminal justice system that transpired since are examined in short order.
After a notorious and formerly beloved Black entertainer, accused of dozens of rapes, is found riddled with bullets, Detectives Kevin Bernard (Anthony Anderson) and Frank Cosgrove (Jeffrey Donovan) get the case.
At first, their investigation is hampered by changed attitudes and technology. Witnesses, particularly those of color, are reluctant to speak, particularly to Cosgrove, who exudes an angry James Woods vibe and seethes with disdain for “woke” sensibilities that tie his hands. He also is irked at how passersby use their phones to document the cops’ every move. And he gets even more ticked when Bernard suggests those cameras also keep them accountable.
But soon, the pendulum swings, and the surveillance state that has sprung up since “Law & Order” was canceled offers a cascade of evidence through phone records, street cameras and DNA left on the end of a nervously smoked cigarette.
It makes you wonder how “Law & Order” always delivered a probable suspect in the second act before Steve Jobs introduced the smartphone.
Look for Camryn Manheim as the den mother who keeps the officers in line, particularly when they erupt in squabbles that could have been torn from the headlines of a right-wing tabloid.
Sam Waterston returns as Jack McCoy, albeit for about 45 seconds. He has to pace himself because as civil servants go, he’s decades beyond retirement age.
In another touch of old-home week, D.A. Jamie Ross (Carey Lowell) shows up but in a plot twist best not divulged here.
Back in the 1990s, Ross set the template for the improbably gorgeous brunette assistant D.A. Angie Harmon picked up her baton for a while. In the “new” show, the role is played by Odelya Halevi, as assistant district attorney Samantha Maroun.
“Law & Order” is as old and comforting as your grandmother’s meatloaf recipe, and that’s both its strength and weakness. It’s difficult to hear its generic jazz, slap-bass heavy theme without being reminded of how similar it sounds to the theme of “Seinfeld,” a series that left the airwaves in 1998.
Similar to the comfort food it is, “Law & Order” returns to familiar tricks. Not an episode goes by when a grouchy stranger doesn’t suddenly and conveniently erupt with a torrent of absurdly specific eyewitness information.
There’s also a parade of Broadway up-and-comers given scant moments to showcase their talents and, presumably, rewarded with the residuals checks that have sustained many an aspiring thespian’s career.
So, “Law & Order” returns, seemingly without missing a beat. But with “SVU” keeping the “dun-dun clang” clanging all these years, you also can say it never really went away.
TONIGHT’S OTHER HIGHLIGHTS
• Time to break in a rookie on “Station 19” (7 p.m., ABC, TV-14).
• Benson helps a young woman adjust to unsettling news on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (8 p.m., NBC, TV-14).
• Joseph’s death remains a mystery on “Big Sky” (9 p.m., ABC, TV-14).
Astronauts (Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood) on a deep space mission tangle with a sentient robot in the 1968 science-fiction epic “2001: A Space Odyssey” (7 p.m., TCM, TV-PG). Douglas Trumbull, who worked on special effects on this film as well as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Blade Runner,” died Feb. 7.
A rival scientist arrives on “Young Sheldon” (7 p.m., CBS, TV-PG) … “Joe Millionaire: For Richer or Poorer” (7 p.m., Fox, TV-14) … Capt. James takes a bullet on “Walker” (7 p.m., CW, r, TV-PG) … Riley realizes Vanessa’s burden on “United States of Al” (7:30 p.m., CBS, TV-PG) … Ghost-writing a website on “Ghosts” (8 p.m., CBS, TV-PG) … Sneaker lust on “Call Me Kat” (8 p.m., Fox, TV-14) … Collaboration on “Legacies” (8 p.m., CW, TV-14) … Gina gets caught in the crossfire on “B Positive” (8:30 p.m., CBS, TV-14) … A prescription for disaster on “Pivoting” (8:30 p.m., Fox, TV-14) … Bull’s estranged brother arrives, full of revealing tales, on “Bull” (9 p.m., CBS, TV-14) … A digital shakedown has explosive real-world consequences on “Law & Order: Organized Crime” (9 p.m., NBC, TV-14).
Norah O’Donnell and Tom Lennon are booked on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” (10:35 p.m., CBS) … Jimmy Fallon welcomes Gordon Ramsay and Dominic Fike on “The Tonight Show” (10:34 p.m., NBC) … Maude Apatow and Stevie Nistor are booked on “The Late Late Show With Seth Meyers (11:37 p.m., NBC).
— OK, that was weird. The least expected story of the week was the scandal involving Felicity Huffman (“Desperate Housewives”) and Lori Loughlin, star of “When Calls the Heart” (7 p.m. Sunday, Hallmark, TV-G), in a bribery/cheating plot to get their respective daughters into elite universities.
This is obviously an ongoing case, and all sides must have their say, or day, in court. But the motivation at the center of this story is worth discussing. It involves some overwhelming need to do anything to get children into elite schools. As if anything “lesser” were unthinkable.
Television plays no small role in this insecurity. I can’t remember how many times I’ve had to describe an ABC legal drama where every single character hails from only the most exclusive Ivy and spends most of the pilot bragging about it.
There was a time, not that long ago, when John Grisham wrote best-selling books about young, barely accredited lawyers from no-name institutions who took on impossible cases against massive corporations and eventually won. And got the girl, to boot.
So, our current era’s neurotic obsession with elitism and inequality is hardly hard-wired.
If anything comes of this sordid affair, it’s an appreciation that shoddy efforts at snobbery are always essentially pathetic. Or on classic TV, comedic. Watching “Gilligan’s Island,” we identified with Mary Ann and the Skipper, and pitied the millionaire and his wife.
— CNN launches the four-hour documentary “Tricky Dick” (8 p.m., Sunday), profiling the life and times of Richard Nixon’s public career, which spanned the decades from the dawn of the Cold War to the Clinton years.
— An anxious new mother joins a group for solidarity and support, only to discover that it has darker plans on its agenda in the 2019 shocker “Mommy Group Murder” (7 p.m., Lifetime, TV-14).
— The Thunder and Warriors meet in NBA action (7:30 p.m., ABC).
— An old kidnapper returns to form on “Ransom” (8 p.m., CBS, TV-14).
— Scheduled on “60 Minutes” (6 p.m., CBS): Embassy workers in China and Cuba complain of mysterious ailments; AOL founder Steve Case and his plans to invest in the future of overlooked American small towns and cities; a visit to Monaco.
— The duels begin on “World of Dance” (7 p.m., NBC, TV-PG).
— Auditions continue on “American Idol” (7 p.m., ABC, TV-PG).
— Lex Luthor is on the loose on “Supergirl” (7 p.m., CW, TV-PG).
— Mr. Wednesday prepares for battle on “American Gods” (7 p.m., Starz, TV-MA).
— After learning about her royal lineage, an adopted 10-year-old becomes a little tyrant in the 2019 shocker “Mommy’s Little Princess” (7 p.m., Lifetime, TV-14).
— A secret room holds dangers on “Charmed” (8 p.m., CW, TV-14).
— Hidden secrets revealed on “The Walking Dead” (8 p.m., AMC, TV-MA).
— A new trial is pursued on “The Case Against Adnan Syed” (8 p.m., HBO, TV-14).
— Axe is determined to destroy Taylor on the fourth season premiere of “Billions” (8 p.m., Showtime, TV-MA).
— Ulysses pursues a conspiracy theory on “Now Apocalypse” (8 p.m., Starz, TV-MA).
— “Unsung” (8 p.m., TVONE) profiles the Jets.
— Pacific overtures on “Madam Secretary” (9 p.m., CBS, TV-PG).
— Tensions rise on “Good Girls” (9 p.m., NBC, TV-14).
— Mo’s past is revealed on “Black Monday” (9 p.m., Showtime, TV-MA).
— St. Patrick’s Day inspires many traditions. Syfy offers a marathon of “Leprechaun” movies, from “Leprechaun 5: In the Hood” (4 p.m. Saturday, TV-14) to “Leprechaun 2” (8 p.m.). TCM takes the traditional approach, ladling out the Technicolor blarney of director John Ford’s 1952 romance “The Quiet Man” (7 p.m. Sunday, TV-PG).
“Dateline” (7 p.m., NBC, TV-PG) … “NBA Countdown” (7 p.m., ABC) … The kids are all right on “MasterChef” (8 p.m., Fox, r, TV-PG) … “48 Hours” (9 p.m., CBS) … A vintage helping of “Saturday Night Live” (9 p.m., NBC, r, TV-14).
A visit from an old friend inspires Miles on “God Friended Me” (7 p.m., CBS, TV-PG) … Homer can’t leave Bart’s virtual realm on “The Simpsons” (7 p.m., Fox, TV-14) … Empathy for all things on “Bob’s Burgers” (7:30 p.m., Fox, TV-14).
A walk down the aisle on “NCIS: Los Angeles” (8 p.m., CBS, TV-14) … On two episodes of “Family Guy” (Fox, TV-14), Meg’s winter Olympics (8 p.m.), fighting over a dowager (8:30 p.m., r) … Aches and pains on “Shark Tank” (9 p.m., ABC, TV-PG).