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'Law & Order' keeps on going and going . . .

. . . but the franchise isn't going quite as strong as it used to

After 15 years and more than 600 episodes in four different series, "Law & Order" can still suck you in.

You sit down and start watching an episode and it's hard to pull yourself away before you find out whodunit and why. Which is pretty astonishing when you consider that the original series — "the mother ship," as creator/executive producer Dick Wolf likes to call it — airs its 355th episode on Wednesday (9 p.m., Ch. 5).

Much has been made over the years about the many cast changes the show has gone through, but that's nothing compared to the huge number of people involved behind the scenes. To date, about 100 different writers and 50 different directors have been credited on the show.

Wolf has always been at the top of the "Law & Order" command structure, but a variety of different executive producers — show runners — have been in charge. And there's a new team this year — Walon Green has worked as a writer/producer on the show off and on from the start, but his credits go back to "Hill Street Blues" and include "ER" and "NYPD Blue." Nicholas Wootton is another "NYPD Blue" alumni who executive produced "Blind Justine" last season.

"I think we're looking at a new generation of writers on the show that can, hopefully, put it past my stated goal of beating 'Gunsmoke,' " Wolf said.

That seems pretty much a given at this point — even though "Law & Order" has to run five seasons beyond this one to surpass 20 seasons of "Gunsmoke" as TV's longest-running drama.

But it's not like the new writers and producers are messing with the formula that has made "Law & Order" work for all these years. Viewers know what they're getting no matter what season they tune in to, whether it's new episodes on NBC or constant repeats on cable.

Wednesday's episode follows a familiar pattern. We see the aftermath of a crime at the top of the episode, but as the investigation begins, it turns out that the murder is rather quickly solved. However . . . that investigation leads us to another crime (or series of crimes) that takes an issue that's ripped from the headlines (in this case, forced sterilization) and weaves a story around it.

Longtime fans will recognize the defense attorney — Richard Brooks returns as Paul Robinette, the show's original No. 2 assistant district attorney (who left the series in 1993).

This being "Law & Order," you know that the defendant will end up being guilty. (Although I'm not telling you if she's found guilty, which is an entirely different matter.) And, while Robinette fares better than most defense attorneys on the show, this being a Dick Wolf production you know that the defense attorney is not going to come across as a white knight.

It's not just defense attorneys who are struggling these days on "Law & Order," however. These are not exactly the best of days for the franchise. The original series is not only facing tough competition from both "CSI: NY" and "Invasion," but it's not getting any help from the weak "Apprentice: Martha Stewart" that NBC is airing as a lead-in. (Still, what with all the problems NBC is having, the fact that NBC owns the show and its success on cable and in DVD sales — through its ownership of Universal — it's not like this show is in the slightest danger of cancellation in the foreseeable future.)

On Sundays, "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" continues to get beat up in the ratings by mega-hit "Desperate Housewives."

And NBC canceled "Law & Order: Trial by Jury" in May after only 13 episodes. (Although, somewhat ironically, the network is currently filling that Friday-at-9 p.m. time slot with repeats of "Criminal Intent.")

"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" is currently the most successful entry in the franchise, regularly appearing in the top 15 in the ratings. And tonight's episode of that show (9 p.m., Ch. 5) uses that ripped-from-the-headlines tactic as well.

As the episode opens, there's a shooting at an elementary school, which leaves a 6-year-old African-American boy dead. The investigation leads back to a white supremacist who owns a gun store — a bad combination.

Cody Kasch, who plays gun-toting teen Zach on "Desperate Housewives," guest stars as the racist teenage son of the racist gun-shop owner. Marcia Gay Harden also guest stars as a member of the racist organization in an episode that features all sorts of twists and turns and surprises.

Without giving too much away, there is maybe one twist too many, and a surprise that, while rather shocking when it's revealed, makes the episode feel a bit too contrived.

There is one major difference between the original "Law & Order" and "SVU." The original continues to be hold to its history of being relatively nonviolent. Oh, we see the results of violence — like the very bloody body of a murder victim in Wednesday's opening scenes — but we don't see the crime committed. (Which is not to say that "Law & Order" doesn't carry things a bit far at times. Wednesday's episode opens with a preteen boy bragging about his sexual conquests. Really.)

"Special Victims Unit," on the other hand, is as violent as anything on network television. Not only do we see young children being shot to death in the opening scene of tonight's episode, but there's a violent shoot-out later in the episode that includes, among other things, a clear view of a bullet exiting the front of a character who is shot from behind.

Consider yourself warned.

"HOUSE" IS ONE of those shows that I always want to like more than I do. And there's quite a bit to like about it — the medical drama is full of intriguing cases (it's sort of an M.D. mystery every week).

Any show built around an anti-hero — Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) is, well, pretty much a big jerk — is something that can challenge not only TV conventions but viewers.

But (and you knew there was going to be a "but" here) . . . I just can't buy into the characters. They don't ring true at all.

There's nothing I like more than wit. And I'm a sucker for sarcasm. But when House is being witty and sarcastic, I see a room full of TV writers sitting around, pounding out scripts and patting each other on the back for how witty and sarcastic they are.

And we sort of get that times two in tonight's episode, which features Ron Livingston as another egomaniac doctor — albeit one whose ego has led him to fight the spread of tuberculosis among the poor in Africa — who gets into a battle of dueling egos with House in tonight's episode (8 p.m., Ch. 13).

It's not that "House" is a bad show; it's just one that I wish were better.


E-mail: pierce@desnews.com