Stabler is back, but this might not be how fans imagined his great return.
It’s been nearly 10 years since Christopher Meloni has played Detective Elliot Stabler on NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” the juggernaut crime show that has now run for more seasons (22) than the original “Law & Order.” Meloni left the series in 2011, last appearing in the Season 12 finale after his contract negotiations with NBC failed.
His absence left a hole in the series, which had relied for more than a decade on the close partnership between Stabler and Detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), but it didn’t take long for “SVU” to recover. For the past 10 seasons, the series has rested on the strong shoulders of Hargitay, who is practically synonymous with the brand at this point.
So Stabler’s big comeback wasn’t a return to the classic two-hander of “SVU,” but to his own new “Law & Order” spinoff, “Organized Crime” (Thursdays, 10 EDT/PDT, ★★½ out of four). And while Meloni hasn’t lost a step as the glaring, gruff and often over-the-line Elliot Stabler, the series premiere of “Organized Crime” was messy and frustrating, with few of the touches that identify it as a “Law & Order” spinoff other than Meloni’s presence. There are no “dun duns,” no chyrons showing the place and time and no introductory voiceover discussing “the criminal justice system.” The pilot set up one big villain rather than a case-of-the-week structure.
With the trappings of the classic franchise from producer Dick Wolf stripped away, “Organized Crime” becomes boring and generic, a far lesser copy of great gritty cop dramas like “The Shield” or “Southland.” Maybe that makes “Organized Crime” a unique “Law & Order” series, but in the wide world of police shows, it doesn’t particularly stand out.
“Organized Crime” kicked off with a crossover event: First, Stabler appeared on “SVU,” where Olivia finds him at the scene of a car bombing in New York. His wife, Kathy (Isabel Gillies), is being wheeled into an ambulance. Stabler soon explains he has been in Rome for much of his time away, working for the NYPD overseas on anti-terrorism, human trafficking and organized crime cases. SVU immediately swoops in on the car bombing case, trying to figure out if Stabler was targeted. After a few false flags, it becomes clear that a big conspiracy is tied up in the bombing, and SVU is taken off the case.
More:Mariska Hargitay, Dick Wolf reflect on TV milestone as ‘Law & Order: SVU’ turns 21
By the end of the “SVU” episode, Kathy has died from her injuries, and Stabler is on the warpath. The crossover was a smart way to open, primarily because it allowed Benson and Stabler to deal with their baggage on the “SVU” installment, and they had plenty to discuss. Because of his abrupt exit, Meloni was was written out of the series offscreen, and when he shows up, Olivia reveals they haven’t spoken in 10 years.
But when we get to the “Organized Crime” episode, where Benson also visits, Stabler isn’t very stable, and he fudges the rules with his NYPD boss so he can work on his wife’s case. The clues eventually lead to a Mafia family Stabler has dealt with in the past, including suave son Richard Wheatley (Dylan McDermott). Stabler decides he isn’t leaving New York to return to Rome, and joins a task force aimed at bringing Wheatley down.
As a pilot episode, “Organized Crime” was extremely (and regrettably) dense, racing through plot points so quickly it’s as if half a season was stuffed into a single hour. Even with the benefit of an “SVU” episode to set up its premise, “Organized Crime” was a muddy mess of information, failing to adequately establish any regular characters other than Stabler and Wheatley. Exactly how Stabler slid back into an NYPD position isn’t made clear, nor is the structure of his new task force.
What is clear is that despite many claims that he’s changed, Stabler is still the same emotional, shoot-first-ask-questions-later cop who we saw on “SVU.” “Organized Crime” struggled to make itself a coherent TV show in its first episode, but it didn’t fail to re-establish Stabler. And if Meloni is all the audience cares about, then “Organized Crime” might be enough.
But besides its protagonist, “Organized Crime” doesn’t have much going for it yet. If the series slows down greatly and establishes its supporting characters, it has a shot at greater success. But if it continues its all-Stabler-all-the-time structure, it is far more likely to fail. As wonderful as Meloni can be as an actor, he needs more compelling characters surrounding him.
It may be a bit old fashioned, but the traditional “Law & Order” structure is comfortingly familiar. And without it, “Organized Crime” just feels incomplete.
More:2021 TV premiere dates, including ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ ‘AGT’: Your favorite shows, new addictions