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There was a time when even two seemed like a lot. But “Law & Order” didn’t stop there. Taxing the show-biz adage “If they liked it once, they’ll love it twice,” NBC went beyond “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (started in 1999) and “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” (2001) to add yet a fourth edition, “Law & Order: Trial By Jury.” (It previews tonight on NBC, with another episode Friday in what will be its regular slot.) “Trial By Jury” stars Bebe Neuwirth (“Cheers”) as New York Assistant District Attorney Tracey Kibre. She is joined by Amy Carlson (“Third Watch”) as Deputy Assistant District Attorney Kelly Gaffney. Kirk Acevedo (“Oz”) plays Detective Hector Salazar, an investigator for the DA’s office who initially is paired with Detective Lennie Briscoe (played, of course, by Jerry Orbach, who in December died of prostate cancer at 69), then, after this week’s episodes, teams up with DA Investigator Chris Ravell (Scott Cohen, of “NYPD Blue” and “Street Time”). As District Attorney Arthur Branch, “Law & Order” veteran Fred Dalton Thompson will be a regular here, too. Under the rule of Dick Wolf, grand pooh-bah of the “Law & Order” empire, this latest entry bears an unmistakable family resemblance: The New York setting; the time-and-place title cards and “ba-bing” signature; a solemn mission statement with which each episode begins: “In the criminal justice system, the most important right is a trial by jury. This is one of those trials.” Ba-bing! The newest variation on an ever-more-familiar theme, “Trial By Jury” proves most innovative in how it echoes the dualistic format of the original to a degree previous spinoffs never have. Through 344-and-counting episodes over 15 seasons, “Law & Order” has always done things by the book: nabbing the bad guy in the first half, then hauling that scoundrel into court. On “Trial By Jury,” a comparable symmetry is achieved by tracking the opposing sides as the case unfolds. Each episode crosscuts between the prosecutors and the defense team (made up of guest stars like Annabella Sciorra and Peter Coyote) as each side revs up for the courtroom clash. On tonight’s episode, will the prosecutors nail a Broadway producer for murdering his actress girlfriend? On Friday, will a wily defense attorney win the jury’s sympathy for his severely wounded client — a thug on trial for killing a cop who complains of police brutality? Each case will be decided by hour’s end. But a more sweeping verdict will be rendered in due time by a jury of viewers: Is “Trial By Jury” guilty of being one “Law & Order” too many? Is the saturation point in sight, particularly with TNT airing hours of old “Law & Order” episodes while reruns of “Special Victims Unit” and “Criminal Intent” unspool on USA? And forget cable. In thrall to all things “Law & Order,” NBC typically devotes nearly one-third of its prime time to the various shows — and this week will blanket more than half its schedule with a “Law & Order” sprawl. One early clue to how the jury might be leaning: Of the three established series, only “Special Victims Unit” is attracting more, not fewer, viewers now than a year ago. But there’s a flip side to the threat of “Law & Order” overkill. Whatever the risk of hastening viewer fatigue, each new show further enriches the world all the series share. Even as they snugly coexist in New York City, they expand that realm. The boundaries of each series are a permeable membrane, so stories and characters are free to roam. Already, crossover episodes of “Law & Order” cum “Trial By Jury” are in the works for this spring. Meanwhile, re-entering the franchise after a decade’s absence is Christopher Noth, a charter “Law & Order” star who left in 1995 (along with his character, Detective Mike Logan, who was banished to a Staten Island precinct house). Starting next fall, Noth will share top bill with Vincent D’Onofrio on “Criminal Intent,” shooting at the same Manhattan studio where he toiled on “Law & Order” for six seasons. Jerry Orbach transferred out of “Law & Order” after last season, his 12th. Like Briscoe, his beloved character, he was seeking lighter duty. Like Briscoe, he found it on “Trial By Jury” in a less demanding job. Then illness claimed Orbach. Now Briscoe, too. In a future episode, his passing will be noted by other “Trial By Jury” characters as they return from his memorial service — another example of “Law & Order” mirroring real life. “It was unspeakably sad to lose Jerry,” Neuwirth said last week at the “Trial By Jury” studio in Queens. “But one of the great examples that Jerry set was a herculean work ethic. It was beyond being a trouper.” After his death, “that example made it not so daunting for us to carry on.” As they carry on at “Trial By Jury,” one cast member shuttles between there and “Law & Order.” “There have been days when I’ve shot scenes for both shows in the same day,” Thompson said between setups in Branch’s office — an exact duplicate of his office on the “Law & Order” stage in Manhattan. But as Thompson spoke, he was looking ahead to this week, when he expected to shoot scenes for both his regular series, plus an appearance on “Special Victims Unit,” which films at yet another studio in North Bergen, N.J. “They tell me where to show up,” said Thompson with a laugh, “and I show up.” But as “Trial By Jury” raises the stakes even higher for the “Law & Order” product line, this sticky issue is about to get stickier: What happens when the viewers stop showing up? Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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