Networks are premiering three new crime dramas Tuesday night

Glenn Garvin
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

"Obviously crime pays," noted plumber-philosopher G. Gordon Liddy once said, "or there'd be no crime." Or television, he might have added.

Network TV's fascination with police procedurals may have slowed in the sense that CBS has put plans for "CSI: Kalamazoo" and "CSI: Big Vacant Lot on Southwest Eighth Street" on hold, but we've nonetheless got three crime dramas debuting within a span of 60 minutes Tuesday night.

It may not be entirely fair to call a show as complexly layered as "The Good Wife" (10 p.m., CBS) a crime drama, though at some basic level it is, with a bleakly luminous Juliana Margulies playing a novice criminal defense attorney who's painfully learning the sport of judicial hardball.

But "The Good Wife" is also an attempt to map the three-way intersection of politics, criminality and celebrity; a cautionary tale of the yawning chasm between the career track and the mommy track; and a riveting character study of an increasingly common American political icon, that blank-faced woman standing by the politician lugubriously confessing his sexual improprieties.

Margulies' character, Alicia Florrick, is one of those women. After 13 years away from the law, she has to go back to work after her district-attorney husband (Chris Noth, "Sex and The City") goes to prison in a racy sex-for-favors corruption scandal. (Not before, in a scene doubtless imagined many times by women from Hillary Clinton to Jenny Sanford, slapping him hard enough to send his eyeballs into orbit.)

Publicly estranged from her husband but working as a defense attorney in the same courthouse where he was a ruthless prosecutor, Alicia discovers she's inherited all his old enemies and none of his allies. Even the private investigator assigned to help her turns out to be somebody her husband fired. ("I would have stuck a knife in his heart," volunteers the woman, played with grim humor by British TV actress Archie Panjabi.) Alicia has to juggle all this while explaining to her teenage daughter why the featured video on YouTube is a surveillance shot of daddy sucking a hooker's toes.

If there's an upside, it's that Alicia's morbid celebrity has given her an unexpectedly empathetic link with her clients. "Does it ever get easier?" brokenly inquires one. "No," replies Alicia. "But you get better at it."

If the spellbinding "Good Wife" offers one view of the potential of the television crime drama, "NCIS: Los Angeles" (9 p.m., CBS) provides quite another. Starring Chris O'Donnell and LL Cool J as U.S. Navy criminal investigators, it's a drab third-generation clone (a spinoff of the original "NCIS," which in turn was a spinoff of "JAG") of a show from the shallow end of the TV gene pool.

So frighteningly generic that you expect David Caruso or Marge Helgenberger to wander in at any moment after taking a wrong turn on one of the "CSI" sets, it's got the usual collection of crime-fighting science nerds, action figures and sleek but mildly troubled chicks and the usual set of plots that somehow manage to be superficial and convoluted at the same time.

Somewhere in between the high of "The Good Wife" and the low of "NCIS: Los Angeles" is ABC's "The Forgotten" (10 p.m., ABC), in which Christian Slater leads a band of amateur sleuths who try to identify John Doe murder victims that the cops have given up on. Think of it as "Without a Trace" for the metabolically challenged, and you won't be far off.

A couple of things put the show a cut above the typical police procedural. One is that, because Slater's investigators aren't cops, they can threaten, lie to and cajole witnesses in ways that make for frightful civil liberties but lively television.

And another is that, without access to the bedazzling TV version of police labs, they can't solve cases through the identification of secret microbes from Mars or whatever. "The Forgotten" is strictly old-school, with the investigators pounding the streets in a search for witnesses, putting the case together one painstaking fact at a time. And with a likable cast that includes Michelle Borth ("Tell Me You Love Me") and Bob Stephenson ("Jericho"), you may find yourself getting interested, one painstaking scene at a time.

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