"Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf likes to compare the original and its spin-offs to a line of luxury cars - different features but a similar standard of quality - and the current situation with "Law & Order: LA" reminds me very much of some advice about cars my dad used to give me.

My dad was always a big believer in trading in a car before it started taking him on regular trips to the garage. He felt it just wasn't worth the time and money you had to spend to keep it running after a certain point; better to move onto a new model whenever possible.

"Law & Order: LA," which returns to NBC with two episodes tonight at 9 & 10 p.m., technically isn't an old model. But at its heart, it isn't the first season of a brand-new series, but the 21st season of the original "Law & Order." The location's different, but the format is identical, as is the sense of inescapable ennui that comes from telling the same stories the same way for more than two decades. Wolf didn't trade in his old clunker for a sleek new model; he just slapped on a fresh coat of paint and moved it to a different garage.

Unsurprisingly, "LOLA" struggled out of the gate. The new locale and actors weren't enough to bring back viewers who had drifted away over the final seasons of the mothership, and in early December, NBC pulled the show from their schedule and invited Wolf to swap a bunch of parts around in hopes they could keep the franchise running a few more years. ("Criminal Intent" begins its final season on USA next month, and "SVU" has slipped enough in the ratings that while it will likely be back next season, it's no lock.)

So "LOLA" returns with a shorter name (in the fall, it was "Law & Order: Los Angeles"), and shakeups throughout the cast. Skeet Ulrich's Detective Rex Winters gets written out in tonight's first episode - in a way that the NBC promos have been unapologetically spoiling, as if they think the way they're doing it is what will bring the viewers back - and by the end of the episode, Alfred Molina's prosecutor Ricardo Morales decides to quit the DA's office and return to the cop job he quit many years earlier. Starting with the second episode, we have a new status quo, with Morales investigating cases alongside TJ Jaruszalski (Corey Stoll), while Terence Howard's ADA Jonah Dekker will now be prosecuting all the cases instead of splitting time with Morales - and with the help of "Law & Order" alum Alana De La Garza, whose Connie Rubirosa moves across the country with no explanation and barely even a nod to her origins. (In her first appearance, she's surprised when Dekker cites a legal precedent that "wouldn't hold up in New York.")

It's a pretty desperate, at times silly gambit. As written in the episodes that aired last fall, Morales was a political animal who enjoyed the spotlight and upward mobility that came with his job. Tonight's first episode really has to contort itself to push him into a circumstance where he'd quit. The second episode - in which the shaky new partners investigate a series of kinky home invasions - provides Molina the kind of flashy interrogation scene that Ullrich never got (or couldn't pull off), but the whole time I was watching I couldn't get past the silliness of the arrangement. While they were bringing Rubirosa to LA, they might as well have had her bring Mike Logan or Cyrus Lupo along with her; short of inserting holographic footage of the late Lennie Briscoe, the return of any former "L&O" character wouldn't be any more contrived than what they do with Morales.


And Rubirosa's presence only affirms the feeling that this is just the original show, relocated 2,500 miles to the west.

It's not even that it's a bad format. The final few seasons of the mothership were among the show's strongest in at least a decade, with maybe the strongest top-to-bottom cast since the show's mid-'90s glory days. But even with that quality and consistency, there wasn't an audience for it anymore. There are more than 400 episodes of the original show, and more than 900 of the franchise's different iterations. If you care about police stories told in this way, you've had - and will, thanks to cable, continue to have - ample opportunity to see them.

All this puttering about under the hood is only delaying the inevitable. Unless Skeet Ulrich was just complete audience repellent, a much larger audience isn't going to miraculously turn out for tonight's episodes. The show is the show. It's had its time. It's okay to consign it to the junkyard and try something else.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com