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You have the right to remain brilliant...


Tom Savage, who's been appointed chairman of the new RTE Authority, is already talking about the possibility of a licence fee increase, yet RTE's main television channel, which had 168 hours of screen time to fill this week, couldn't come up with even a half-hour of original programming that wasn't part of its regular news, current affairs or sport service or that wasn't a continuation of existing series. Perhaps Mr Savage might ponder that before he asks us to supplement an already hefty licence fee.

So with no new documentaries, dramas or even (God forbid) attempts at comedy, lifestyle or reality shows, the reviewer was left clutching at imports -- in my case, the 18th season of Law and Order, now being screened by RTE1 on Saturday nights.

If ever a series could be called ubiquitous, it's Law and Order. Since Dick Wolf created it in 1990, the original and its spinoffs -- Law and Order: Criminal Intent and Law and Order: Special Victims' Unit being the most popular -- have been regular schedule-fillers on almost every channel and are currently to be seen, not just on RTE1, but also on 3e (formerly Channel 6 until TV3 acquired it) and on Hallmark, where you can watch six or seven episodes each day.

Personally, I usually avoid the Criminal Intent strand, mainly because it features Vincent D'Onofrio, who's probably the most irritatingly mannered actor on the planet, and I can also live without the Special Victims Unit series, finding it too luridly overwrought. But I'm a fan of the basic series, the longest-running crime show on television, even though its claim to originality can be dismissed by those with long memories -- in the early 1960s, a series called Arrest and Trial, featuring Ben Gazzara as the main cop and Chuck Connors as the principal defence attorney, pioneered the same format.

Being a fan means, of course, that I've had my favourites among its frequently changing cast. The late, great Jerry Orbach as sardonic veteran cop Lennie Briscoe was a big improvement on predecessor Paul Sorvino; Elisabeth Rohm was the most interesting and ambiguous of the assistant DAs (gorgeous women every one of them -- just as in our own Law Library); while one of the fascinating things about Sam Waterston's performance as DA executive assistant Jack McCoy (replacing Michael Moriarty in 1993) has been the spectacle of him getting more and more cranky and contrary over 15 years. Oh, and the series would be unthinkable without E Epatha Merkerson as police lieutenant Anita van Buren.

At the outset of its 18th

season, she's still in charge, though Sam Waterston is now the presiding DA (crankier than ever) and his former job has been filled by Linus Roache, the Manchester-born actor who was so good in Antonia Bird's 1994 movie Priest and Iain Softley's 1997 version of The Wings of the Dove.

His assistant (another beauteous babe) is Alana de la Garza, while Jesse L Martin, who used to partner Jerry Orbach, now has Jeremy Sisto as sidekick.

Much has changed then, though essentially all remains the same -- which, of course, is part of the show's addictive appeal.

A major crime has been committed, the police chase up leads, an alleged perpetrator is arrested and the DA's office seeks a conviction. More often than not the prosecutors win, though sometimes they fail.

A notable feature of the series has always been that it keeps to the business in hand and doesn't delve into the private lives of its main protagonists -- a blessed relief given the prevailing fashion for delving into the tormented psyches of most crime show heroes: Morse, Cracker and all those other angst-ridden seekers after truth.

Now ITV has adopted the Dick Wolf template, and this week saw the unveiling of Law and Order: UK (ITV/TV3), which closely follows the American format -- the same titles, the same restless camera, and the same solemn declaration at the outset that "in the criminal justice system the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups -- the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys (here the crime prosecutors) who prosecute the offenders". I found this first UK instalment just as engrossing as its American counterpart, with Bradley Walsh an engaging London version of Jerry Orbach and Bill Paterson a striking crown prosecutor. Patrick Malahide was arresting, too (isn't he always?) as a slimy defence counsel.

Yet the overall tone is subtly different, a bit more jokey (the US version is quite humourless) and a bit more sentimental, too, as evidenced in the somewhat treacly score and in some forced attempts at poignancy.

But the action moves along smartly and I'll be surprised if ITV doesn't have a winner on its hands here.

Teens in the Wild (RTE1) ended in upbeat fashion, with assurances from psychologist David Coleman that the four troubled youths had benefited from their experiences together in Connemara's Delphi Centre.

Overall, I liked the series a good deal, not least because it took its teenage boys seriously and obviously wanted the best for them. It helped, of course, that all of them were so personable, so that after a while you began to worry about them as if they were your own. As reality shows go, this was a superior effort.

The finals of Masterchef (BBC2) made for addictive viewing even if the set-ups were often so contrived as to be laughable.

By contrast, RTE1's Heat, which similarly pits amateur cooks against each other, is charmless and made even more unpalatable by the egos of chefs Kevin Thornton and Kevin Dundon -- the latter this week cackling about the inept showing of his rival's charges, while Thornton looked about to erupt into a tantrum at any moment. I wanted to shout at the screen: "Hey, guys, the show's not about you" -- though, of course, it is, and more's the pity.