As "Law & Order" approaches the end of its sixth season, the show once again clearly demonstrates why it's one of the best-made, most thought-provoking hours on the air.
Tonight's episode (9 p.m., Ch. 5) raises several legal and ethical questions, and - as usual - leaves the viewer to decide what's right and what's wrong.One warning, however - it won't be easy.
As always, once again, the episode picks up in the aftermath of violence. In this case, several people have been brutally murdered in a clothing store.
(Occasional criticism of "Law & Order" is misplaced. The show does not depict violence. In this episode, however, we could have done with seeing a bit less blood at the murder scene.)
It quickly becomes apparent that the murderer is a schizophrenic vagrant (Denis O'Hare). In the depths of his dementia, he stalks and murders an innocent woman - as well as several other people in the store where she was shopping.
But his capture is only the beginning of the problems.
Was he responsible for his actions? After all, it's obvious that he has serious mental problems.
But, as it turns out, he chose to go off the medication that allows him to function at least relatively normally. And when he's on that medication the guy is a more than competent lawyer - who decides to defend himself in court.
There's also the question of whether Kincaid (Jill Hennessy) shares any of the responsibility for the murders. As it turns out, the man was charged some 16 months earlier with stalking another woman - and Kincaid was the prosecutor who plea bargained the case out and put the man back on the street.
But is she at fault? Or was it just a case of an overworked public servant who couldn't possibly have foreseen that the man would turn deadly?
And Kincaid's experience calls into question the entire legal system. She did what she was supposed to, the system worked - but the results are tragic.
Unlike lesser dramas, "Law & Order" leaves it up to the viewers to decide. And network TV shows that actually make you think are few and far between.
Which makes a show like "Law & Order" all the more precious.
"ELLEN" WRAPS UP THE SEASON: It isn't easy being in charge of a wedding. Particularly not a wedding like the one on tonight's episode of "Ellen" (7 p.m., Ch. 4).
Which makes it a bit tough on maid of honor Ellen (Ellen DeGeneres) when Paige (Joely Fisher) puts her in that position.
Paige's sister, Heather, is in a snit because Paige chose Ellen to be the maid of honor. Spence (Jeremy Piven) and Paige are bickering like children. The hotel room where the wedding is supposed to take place is full of ventriloquist dummies. The wedding cake is missing. So is the bride's bouquet.
And Paige's mother, on leave from the Betty Ford Center, is passed out cold in the front row.
Just a few minor details.
This is the first half - and the weaker half - of "Ellen's" two-part season finale. There's some very funny stuff here, but it does manage to go waaaay over the top, too. For example, when Ellen beats up a CIA agent.
(You'll just have to watch. It's too complicated to explain.)
And there's just too many sub-plots with too many minor characters that bog the episode down.
But the missteps along the way are nearly redeemed by the genuine shocker that ends the half hour.
And, if you stick it out through this week's episode, be sure not to miss next week's conclusion. It's very funny stuff - including one of the best sight-gags any TV wedding has ever had.
"Ellen" remains an inconsistent sitcom that has never quite hit its stride. And this two-parter is a fairly good representation of the series as a whole.
But in the end, the laughs make sitting through the lamer stuff worthwhile. On balance - particularly if you're an "Ellen" fan - this season finale is worth watching.
PREDICTABLE: "Our Son, the Matchmaker" (8 p.m., Ch. 2) is one of those TV movies that tries really hard to be heart-warming but never quite succeeds.
Add to that the fact that it's entirely predictable, and there isn't a great deal to recommend of "Matchmaker."
Ann Jillian stars as a woman whose life has been much less than satisfactory since she gave up her illegitimate son for adoption when she was 15. It's 28 years later, and that son wants to get in contact with her.
Of course, the reunion is a smashing success. And it prompts her to contact her son's father - her high school boyfriend, the man she's always truly loved.
Even if the title of this teleflick weren't "Our Son, the Matchmaker," couldn't you pretty much see where this one is headed already?
There are no surprises along the way. And not much in the way of a script, either.
"Matchmaker" isn't stupid or offensive or obnoxious. It just isn't much. Period.
DUMPING DANA? There's good news and bad news about "The Dana Carvey Show."
The good news is that ABC, in another of those last-minute moves, yanked Tuesday's episode off the air and replaced it with a repeat episode of "Home Improvement."
The bad news is that, despite this rather dramatic display of little or no confidence in the series, ABC executives insist that the show "remains a contender for the fall schedule."
The dumped episode will air sometime after the current sweeps period ends. (Of course, that pretty much defeats the purpose of taping the show just a couple of days before the air date to keep it fresh and current.)
The reason for the last minute change, of course, is ratings. "Carvey" showed a precipitous drop last week, losing a third of "Home Improvement's" audience and providing a weak lead-in for "NYPD Blue." And, being that this is one of those all-important sweeps months that go a long way toward determining advertising rates, ABC has less patience than usual.
Of late, the networks seem more prone than ever to yanking shows off the air with little or no notice. After a relatively stable season in which networks actually showed some patience, the last few weeks have been somewhat of a mad-house.
ABC alone has pulled the plug on episodes of "Carvey," "Aliens in the Family," "Buddies" and "Muppets Tonight!"
Of course, this kind of schedule-shuffling has the unwanted effect of confusing viewers and potentially damaging ratings even further.
TOP TEN LIST: From a recent "Late Show with David Letterman" - New Ford Slogans:
10. Where there's smoke, there's a Ford.
9. Have you driven a Ford to the fire station lately?
8. Forget Chevy - we've got the real Blazer!
7. Available in original or extra crispy
6. Now every Bronco is as exciting as O.J.'s!
5. Ford, the Unabomber of the highways
4. Quality is job one, putting out the fire is job two.
3. Like a rock - a rock of hot, molten lava
2. Aren't you tired of cops who stop you for speeding and ask, "Where's the fire?"
1. Click . . . vroom . . . kaboom!
QUOTABLE: Conan O'Brien, from his opening remarks on "Late Night":
"In response to allegations that her clothing line was produced by children in a Honduran sweatshop, Kathie Lee Gifford said she would never ever exploit a child . . . unless, of course, it's Cody."