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‘Law & Order: SVU’ finds stability without Stabler

By yael-katzwer

Section: Arts, Top Stories

October 14, 2011

I am an admitted “Law & Order” junkie. I enjoy all of the franchise’s incarnations and will flip through the television channels, trying to find an episode—any episode—of “Law & Order.” I am usually not disappointed. Many channels air “Law & Order” at numerous times throughout the day. My most difficult 7 p.m. decision is usually trying to decide whether to watch “Law & Order” or “Law & Order: SVU.”

I often choose “Law & Order” because it is different and does not reuse character plots again and again. “Law & Order: SVU” became very predictable—you always tuned in expecting some sort of sexual depravity, a snarky comment from Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer), a near-crying jag from Detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and an overly-aggressive response from Detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni).

This is no longer the case. After 12 years of catching and attacking sadistic creeps, Detective Stabler has turned in his badge and gun. Meloni did not renew his contract with NBC and did not return to the show at the beginning of the 13th season, which aired Sept. 21.

When I first heard that Meloni would not be returning to “SVU,” I was worried about how the show would fare. He had been starring as the central detective for 12 years and his freak-outs, while predictable, were always fun. By far his best moment occurred in season four’s episode “Resilience,” in which he confronted a mother who had, along with her husband, forcibly impregnated their teenage daughter (It’s “Special Victims Unit,” what were you expecting?). After being accused of that incorrigible behavior, the mother responds, “That’s disgusting.”

Getting right up in her face, Stabler, face beet-red with the large vein in his forehead throbbing, screamed, with some spittle flying from his mouth, “YOU’RE DISGUSTING!” Great scene.

This was more or less what the viewers came to expect from Stabler for the next eight seasons—and we were not disappointed.

During the summer, I had hypothesized how Angry Elliot would be booted from the show. Finally, after much thought, I announced to my family that the only conceivable way to evict Meloni’s character from the show, while remaining true to his character, was to have him kill someone and have the Bureau of Internal Affairs fire him.

Watching “Scorched Earth,” the first episode of this new season, I was shocked to see how close I was. As Meloni had not renewed his contract, he did not appear on the episode, but the others referred to his absence often. We found out secondhand that he quit his job—I know, I know, I thought he would get fired—after—get this—he shot a girl and killed her. Too funny.

I was hesitant to accept “Law & Order: SVU” without Stabler, but I quickly realized how refreshing it was not to be waiting for Stabler’s interrogation-room explosion. The show has replaced Stabler by bringing in new blood: Kelli Giddish as Detective Amanda Rollins and Danny Pino as Detective Nick Amaro.

While I am not entirely happy with these additions, I do believe they add something much needed—fresh blood. While neither character is developed enough to be their own person—Rollins reminds viewers of Connie Nielsen’s Detective Dani Beck in season eight and Amaro reminds viewers of Ice-T’s Detective Fin Tutuola in his earlier years on the show—both have the capacity to become something more.

One reason these additions upset me, however, was that I always want more Munch and Fin. With these new characters, Munch and Fin are still only minor characters, which, to viewers who love their quick wit and sarcasm, is a sad thing. I am clearly not the only Munch fan—Richard Belzer has appeared playing the same character on more shows than anyone else; he even appeared on some shows owned by different stations, such as FOX’s “Arrested Development.”

The new blood has also made me realize, however, that perhaps it is time to retire Mariska Hargitay’s Detective Olivia Benson. This is her 13th year on the show and her character has not grown much in that time. She is still an emotional wreck, with a semi-creepy obsession with her former partner, Stabler, and a compulsive desire to discuss her mother’s rape every five episodes. So far this season, she has been an emotional roller coaster because she misses Stabler so much—it is tiring.

One of the things that made the original “Law & Order” so great was the near-constant rotating door of characters. Some you loved—Jerry Orbach’s Detective Lennie Briscoe—and some you hated—Benjamin Bratt’s Detective Rey Curtis—but all of them were there too briefly to become cliched. The focus was always on the case, not the interchangeable detectives.

Additionally, Tamara Tunie and B.D. Wong have been dropped from the lineup of “Law & Order: SVU.” We’ll still see them but hopefully not every episode and not in improbable situations (ahem, Tunie, I’m talking to you).

These changes have the potential to revitalize what has been a flagging show. And, if I ever feel the need see Stabler flip out and attack someone, there are always reruns.

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