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Neuwirth, guest stars enliven 'Trial By Jury'

How much do we need another ''Law & Order" series, a fourth chung-chung machine banging out weekly tales of justice? About as much as we need another sitcom about a tubby hubby and his testy wife. Or another reality show about a skunky bachelor and his breasty dates.

Which is to say, not much.

And yet NBC's newest crime clone, ''Law & Order: Trial By Jury," isn't a bad way to spend an hour. Certainly it doesn't qualify as original, or imaginative, or even challenging, as it reaches toward its goal of ''billions served." As a franchise show, it represents network TV at its laziest and most factory-like, automatically conjugating the verb ''to solve" amid the boroughs of New York. Still, producer Dick Wolf's latest series, which premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 7, manages to entertain with its distinctive casting, most notably Bebe Neuwirth as an assistant DA. ''Law & Order: Trial By Jury," which moves to its regular time slot tomorrow night at 10, does its mother ship proud, unlike, say, ''CSI: NY."

The concept is decidedly vague. While the title ''Trial By Jury" hints at an exploration of the jury-deliberation process, like Tom Fontana's failed series ''The Jury," the three episodes sent to critics don't spend much time locked in with 12 angry men and women. In fact, the cursory jury scenes are the episodes' weakest. The series trademark this time seems to be omniscience, as each episode leaps among the points of view of all the lawyers and cops and judges and jurors involved in a jury trial. As on ''Criminal Intent," we often know whodunit early on; but then we see how effective the justice system really is -- or isn't -- in processing the guilty party. The show generally takes a heroic approach to DAs and cops; but it's also cynical enough to provide a few moral twists.

The central character is Neuwirth's Tracey Kibre, who clearly fulfills her ''Law & Order" character requirement as a workaholic. Familiar to fans of ''Cheers" and ''Frasier" as Lilith, on whose tongue ice would not melt, Neuwirth is warmer here. She has a temper, and some bite, but they're fueled by compassion and the need to get her cases right. She is particularly vivid since she's teamed with one of the famously bland ''Law & Order" women, a fellow prosecutor named Kelly Gaffney (an underacting Amy Carlson). The fretful Kirk Acevedo, who played Alvarez on ''Oz," is also low-key as DA investigator Hector Salazar. (Filmed in New York, the ''Law & Order" shows continue to provide the cast of ''Oz" -- Chris Meloni, Dean Winters, and B.D. Wong, among others -- with TV work.)

Along with these franchise newcomers, ''Trial By Jury" is loaded with many of the solid characters who've appeared on other ''Law & Order" shows, including Fred Dalton Thompson's Arthur Branch and Sam Waterson's Jack McCoy. And the first two episodes feature the late Jerry Orbach in his last performances as Detective. Lennie Briscoe. Can it be that Wolf's New York is the new Hooterville, the 1960s town where characters from different series such as ''Green Acres" and ''The Beverly Hillbillies" fatefully intersected? Even ''Law & Order" alum Carey Lowell shows up in one episode as a judge.

Along with Neuwirth, ''Trial By Jury" benefits from a few well-chosen guest stars. In the first three episodes, Annabella Sciorra, Peter Coyote, and Lorraine Bracco put in enjoyably showy turns as lawyers with impaired moral compasses. In a franchise that must come up with some 88 murder cases a year, the effective use of guest stars is a way to stave off repetition and ripped-from-the-headlines predictability. ''Trial By Jury" may be familiar and formulaic, but it does come off as something livelier than an NBC cash cow.

Law & Order: Trial By Jury
Starring: Bebe Neuwirth, Jerry Orbach, Amy Carlson, Kirk Acevedo, Fred Dalton Thompson
On: NBC, Channel 7
Tonight, 10-11. The series moves to its regular time slot tomorrow night at 10.

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