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'Law and Order: Los Angeles' recap: Redemption through Charles Manson

October 7, 2010 |  6:29 am

NUP_141565_0172 Now, THAT was a solid crime show.

Following on the heels of last week’s cliche-ridden, cringe-able debut, "Law and Order: Los Angeles" redeemed itself Wednesday night. Was it "The Wire"? No. But nothing is "The Wire," and that's not a fair fight, so let's not bother. What it was, however, was a tightly edited hour of non-obvious storytelling that touched (deftly, I thought) on some real issues that cops, prosecutors and criminals deal with in real life.  And the much-beloved chung-chung interlude sound is back!

So, some kudos to you, Mr. Wolf, and your pack of writers. Surprisingly, 10 million-plus tuned in to watch that train wreck you offered up last week. I hope enough of them gave you a second chance to keep the suits in Burbank happy.  And for the love of all things entertaining, I hope you don't relapse.

Speaking of suits, the shot callers at Show Tracker have suggested that I take a moment to do what I neglected to do last week and introduce myself: My day job is covering the Los Angeles Police Department for The Times. I spend a lot of time with real cops, so editors decided I'd be the smart choice to hold forth on fictional cops and prosecutors. (Translation: They were desperate.)

So, the show: With a fictionalized version of the Charles Manson cult killings as the backdrop, the episode revolves around the murder of "Baby" Jane Lee Rayburn, one of the faux-Manson's disciples, who is found stabbed to death on Venice Beach shortly after her release from 30 years in the big house.

Rex and T.J crack the case in less time than it takes me to finish my beer. (Side note: I know it's TV and people want closure and need an evildoer to root against, but I hope there is at least one episode this season in which the detectives spend the hour chasing wild geese and end the show without a clue of who dunnit.) The killer was a woman who was wrongfully convicted of killing her children in a house fire* and then was forced to share a cell with Baby Jane, who did terrible, terrible things to her. The woman eventually had her conviction thrown out and was waiting with a little knife and a hearty helping of revenge when Baby Jane got out.

The investigation into Baby Jane's killing forced the LAPD and the district attorney's office to revisit the old arson case and confront the ugly reality that the woman had been railroaded by shoddy detective work and a confession that was extracted under dubious circumstances. But here’s where the writers got inspired: The detective who elicited the false confession way back when? None other than Rex's wife -– a now-retired LAPD detective.

A bit far-fetched? Yes. But cops pushing beyond ethical lines during interrogations to win confessions are a real issue. (Check out this story I wrote with a colleague on the issue.)  And cop couples are common.  Their lives are often complicated by the stresses and messiness that comes with having two badges on the kitchen table. The conversations between Rex and his wife were deft and seriously tough to watch.

The whole mess, meanwhile, presents quite the situation for the district attorney’s office, which had been mulling the idea of retrying the woman after her conviction on killing her kids was thrown out.  With the Police Department’s reputation at risk of serious tarnishing when news of its sub-par investigation got out, Deputy D.A. Jonah Dekker (played convincingly by Terrance Howard) is left in court to walk that fine line that often runs between the truth, justice and politics. It's a line that real police chiefs, D.A.'s and mayors get tangled in all the time.

Beyond all the enjoyable plot twists, the feel of the show was different Wednesday night. Less glossy. Less rehearsed. Less Hollywood and more, well, Los Angeles.

-- Joel Rubin

*Read this horrifying New Yorker article about a Texas man who likely was wrongly accused of killing his kids in a house fire and put to death.

Photo: Corey Stoll as Det. Tomas "T.J." Jaruszalski and Skeet Ulrich as Det. Rex Winters. Credit: Dean Hendler/NBC.