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NBC's new drama "Crime & Punishment" has one character viewers will never see.

Well, it's not so much a character as it is a questioner - an off-screen voice who asks the characters about the action on the screen."It is a dramatic device. And it is there to break the fourth wall with the audience quite deliberately," said creator/producer Dick Wolf. "This is a way to get inside, hopefully, over the course of many episodes, the minds of the criminals. Why they do things the way they do. Why they do certain hings."

The questioning is not limited to the criminals, however. The detectives, played by Jon Tenney ("Equal Justice") and Rachel Ticotin ("Total Recall") are asked about their methods and motives, and various witnesses are questioned about their part in the story.

It's an effective if rather unusual device - unusual because the interrogator does not represent any tangible person.

"The interrogator is whichever way you would like to see it," Wolf said. "He's the voice of God. He's the voice of the audience.

"Basically, I hope that he will be perceived as the audience's representative to the criminal element."

Wolf also sees the device as a way to give the audience insight without bogging the story down.

"Hopefully, as I said, it is a way to present information that you've never been able to present without hideous exposition of internal monologue," he said. "And that's the exciting edge for us of the show."

As Wolf himself acknowledges, the interrogator is not essential to the story. Like another of his series, "Law & Order," "Crime & Punishment" is a superior drama about law enforcement.

It's also about law-breaking. The criminals are on screen as much as the cops as their crime unfolds.

In at least the first two episodes, the crimes are quite intriguing. ("Crime" debuts Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Ch. 2, then moves to Thursday at 9 p.m. - where it will remain throughout March. Locally, Thursday's episode will be postponed until Saturday at 4:30 p.m. on KUTV by a basketball game.)

Like so many episodes of "Law & Order," Wednesday's debut of "Crime & Punishment" resonates of an actual incident - the recent kidnapping of an Exxon executive. But, again like "Law," that's simply a jumping off point for the story.

Tenny and Ticotin both turn in fine performances, creating an interesting team. Their relationship isn't always smooth, but there's a certain chemistry there.

"Crime & Punishment" is not, however, a show for the entire family. There's a good bit of violence and adult themes - not to a greater extreme than television has seen before, but not the sort of thing the kids should be watching.