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"Murder One' does a triple plot twist

Although fans lobbied hard for its renewal, Murder One loyalists might not recognize the Steven Bochco drama when it returns to ABC this fall with a new star (Anthony La Paglia), a new format (three murders, not one), a new tone (lighter), and a new but equally challenging time slot (against Seinfeld on Thursdays).

The biggest change comes in the replacement for Daniel Benzali, who was let go after one season of playing the brooding, mumbling defense attorney Ted Hoffman. (The character's absence _ he leaves the firm to mend his marriage _ will be explained in the first episode this fall.)

Though Bochco admits to courting the likes of Alan Alda and Danny Glover, he selected La Paglia, a New York stage actor, for the role of James Wyler.

"He'll be a much less formal guy," Bochco told TV critics Thursday, noting that where Hoffman was never seen without a suit coat last season, Wyler will favor a shirtsleeves approach. "He'll have more of a blue-collar sensibility. He'll be a little more spontaneous. Every bit as smart as Hoffman, but less cautious."

Wyler will also bring a lighter tone to the series, which grew darker over time with Benzali's ultra-serious performance.

Responding to complaints from viewers who had difficultly following the bold one-story, one-season concept, Bochco will weave three cases into Murder One's second season. The first _ about defending a woman accused of murdering the California governor and his mistress _ should last about eight episodes, during which hints of the second case will be unveiled. The third will follow shortly, as ABC has only ordered 18 episodes so far.

Though disappointed viewers didn't follow his lead, Bochco understood their concern. "People don't watch television that way," he acknowledged, noting that even fans of the most popular series might only catch a half-dozen episodes a year. "When they missed a few episodes, there was a general feeling they couldn't get back onto that moving train."

Ratings hang over TV

Although the hows and whys of the forthcoming TV rating system are up in the air, NYPD Blue co-creator and executive producer David Milch is certain of one thing: His police drama deserves the strictest rating around.

"If "R' is as adult as it gets, we would want to be labeled that, just to keep our options open," he said at a lunchtime session with TV critics Thursday. Because of the complex storylines from alcoholism to spousal abuse to police brutality, he thinks NYPD Blue would be limited creatively by any less of a distinction.

Milch's honesty is a rarity among producers these days, most of whom have dodged the issue of what their shows will be labeled when the time comes. Milch's own NYPD Blue partner Bochco, who created the year's most controversial new sitcom Public Morals, believes that CBS show with foul language and sexual crudisms included would rate a "PG at worst."