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Law & Order SVU: Articles, 1999
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Made to 'Order'
''Law & Order: Special Victims Unit'' may be too hot for its time slot. Stars Chris Meloni and Mariska Hargitay reveal the trouble with bringing sex crimes to primetime
 Liane Bonin, Entertainment Weekly, 9.20.99
Last month, ''Law & Order'' creator Dick Wolf grumbled that NBC execs goofed by slating his new spin-off, ''Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,'' for Mondays at 9 p.m. He said the show, which debuts Sept. 20, is simply too intense to air before 10 p.m. because of its focus on a team of detectives devoted to solving sex crimes.
But viewers hoping for cheap thrills may be disappointed. ''The show is not here to say, Oh, we're about sex and the worst aspects of it, and we're going to show you something really titillating and gruesome,'' says star Christopher Meloni. ''You're not going to see the bloodbath.'' Adds costar Mariska Hargitay, ''Rape is not about sex, it's about anger and violence towards women, and we're really going to get into what that's all about.''
However, the show will add a touchy-feely aspect to ''Law & Order'''s business as usual. ''Instead of finding the perpetrator and throwing him into the justice system, this show will have the characters ask, 'How is this affecting me? How do I deal with that?''' says Meloni. ''My character has four kids, three of them girls, so for him it's dealing with finding a rapist, then coming home to find his 14-year-old dressed and ready to go out on her first date. There's a lot of personal stuff to deal with.'' And forget any easy good guy/bad guy conclusions. ''What I was drawn to in this show was the shades of gray,'' says Hargitay. ''This is not about the bad rapist and the good victim. There are always extenuating circumstances.''
While Meloni hopes everyone tunes in to the show, he understands why some viewers may shy away from the disturbing subject matter, which won't be hard to do given the lighter fare on competing networks. ''I won't say Americans are puritanical, but they don't deal comfortably with sexual issues, in my opinion,'' he says. ''[Potential problems for viewers] can be anything from the crime we're trying to portray is too brutal, to the language we use to describe the crime.''

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (Review)
Phil Gallo, Variety, 9.20.99

Filmed in New York by Wolf Films in association with Studios USA Television. Executive producers, Dick Wolf, Robert Palm; co-executive producers, Peter Jankowski, Ted Kotcheff; producers, David DeClerque, Michael R. Perry; co-producer, Joe Lazarov; director, Jean De Segonzac; director of photography, Anthony Jannelli; production designer, Teresa Carriker-Thayer; editor, Doug Ibold; music, Mike Post; casting, Julie Tucker, Lynn Kressel Casting. 60 MIN.
Capt. Donald Cragen            Dann Florek
Elliot Stabler          Christopher Meloni
Olivia Benson             Mariska Hargitay
John Munch                  Richard Belzer
Monique Jeffries             Michelle Hurd
Brian Cassidy                 Dean Winters
With: Gordana Rashovich, Isabel Gillies, Elizabeth Ashley, Ned Eisenberg, Tina Benko, Ronald Guttman, Mark Zimmerman, Angie Harmon, Mili Avital.
Stuck in one of television's worst timeslots -- Mondays, opposite kickoff of the football game -- this "Law & Order" spinoff wastes no time getting to a juicy crime and expertly tucking the necessary character exposition into a handful of scenes that propel the drama. While it doesn't tarry in introducing characters the way so many ensemble dramas do, it doesn't maximize the presence of two familiar faces -- "L&O" vet Dann Florek and "Homicide's" Richard Belzer. But Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay immediately display a solid chemistry that could carry this look at the seedy side of sex drives.
Detectives Elliot Stabler (Meloni) and Olivia Benson (Hargitay) are the primaries in the case of a cab driver hacked to death behind the wheel. SVU, which handles sexually based offenses, is dragged in because the perpetrator has also sliced off his genitals, leading them on an obvious investigation that becomes the standard-issue wild goose chase.
Detective squad is considered "elite," yet it takes Capt. Cragen (Florek) to figure out that the cabbie's license has been forged and the detectives are looking for the wrong man. What appears to be a dead end becomes a twist that involves rape, a Serbian national and ethnic cleansing.
First episode lacks the energy and grit of the first season of "Law & Order," but Anthony Jannelli's camera work clearly points out who's guilty, and director Jean De Segonzac and editor Doug Ibold keep the action taut even when it's apparent exactly where things are headed.
One imagines that the show will continue in this vein of law and minimal order. "L&O's" Angie Harmon makes a brief guest appearance as assistant DA Abbie Carmichael accepting a plea bargain.
With a known commodity in the wisecracking and paranoid John Munch (Belzer), premiere seems like it could have better worked him into the fabric of the story. On the other hand, script takes a cue from "Homicide" by focusing on a specific team and the dynamics of their relationship -- Stabler's the calm one, Benson's the hothead ready to bend the rules. Indeed the premiere has the audience wondering why officers around Benson are concerned about her ability to handle the job. A dinner chat with mom reveals that Olivia was a child of rape.
Hargitay, the youngest daughter of Jayne Mansfield, plays her volatile detective with a sheen of stoicism and layers of anger; Meloni's Stabler is the level-headed member of the bunch. While Belzer is left to comic devices here -- Munch is one of the most memorable cop characters in the '90s -- Dean Winters is given even less to do as Brian Cassidy, and what he comes up with is an irksome single note. Florek, who commanded a Staten Island precinct in last year's "Law & Order" telefilm, is a leader by example, the one who has the smarts -- smarts that don't appear evenly distributed in the premiere.
Two days after "SVU" airs, "Law & Order" debuts with Jesse L Martin as Detective Edward Green. The replacement for Benjamin Bratt, he is the antithesis of the collected Ray Curtis. His perf in episode one packs a real wallop. Show also signals a prominent return of the handheld camera and more of the cinematic feel that's defining much of the fall season's tone in dramas.

Crimes of Passion
Pat. St. Germain, Winnipeg Sun, 9.20.99

Law & Order types will get a charge from the arresting new spinoff Special Victims Unit
If Law & Order fans are disappointed, at least actor Chris Meloni's mother will be happy when his new spinoff series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit debuts on NBC Ch. 6 tonight at 8 p.m.
Not only is her 38-year-old son changing dramatic stripes -- from diabolical homoerotic inmate in HBO's prison drama Oz to good-guy cop in SVU -- but his series also changed its distressing original title, Law & Order: Sex Crimes.
"It's funny, the question of why did Sex Crimes get changed," Meloni says.
"When I first told my ma, I go, 'Ma, I got the show,' and she goes, 'Oh that's great, what's it called?' and I go. 'Law and Order: Sex Crimes.' Pregnant pause, like, 'I don't like that.' The next day they changed it, so I think she had something to do with it."
Actually, Ma Meloni aside, Law & Order creator Dick Wolf says NBC didn't want to alienate potential viewers with the more titillating title.
And the show, which will nevertheless focus exclusively on sex-related crimes, already has an uphill challenge in a timeslot against rival powerhouses Ally McBeal on Fox, Everybody Loves Raymond on CBS and ABC's Monday Night Football.
Luckily, it can borrow some shine from sister show Law & Order -- the 1997 Emmy-winning drama enters its 10th season Wednesday -- along with a few high-wattage cast members from Oz and NBC's defunct Homicide: Life On The Street.
Dean Winters (Machiavellian Oz inmate Ryan O'Reilly) goes legit as Det. Brian Cassidy, a new cop who "worships" his partner, former Baltimore Det. John Munch (Richard Belzer).
The Munch character, who featured in a Homicide/Law & Order crossover last season, arrives fully intact with his trademark Kennedy conspiracy theories and indignant bluster, raging in the opener, "I'm never setting foot in the city of Baltimore again as long as I'm on this living sphere."
Wolf says bringing Munch to the New York City show was a no-brainer after Homicide was cancelled and executive producer Tom Fontana (Oz) "sort of willed me the character. I thought I would have been crazy to turn down the opportunity to use him. It hasn't been done before and it's, I think, a really unique casting coup."
But Belzer doesn't get much screen time in the pilot, which introduces the lead partners, father-of-four family guy Det. Elliott Stabler (Meloni) and single Det. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) when they investigate the murder and genital dismemberment of a cab driver.
Unfortunately, Benson makes a lousy first impression. The debut case, which involves a Serb war criminal and rapist, sends her into an absurdly emotional tailspin. And while Benson has a credible personal reason for going off the deep end -- her mother (Elizabeth Ashley) was a rape victim -- it also begs the question of why she's in the sex crimes unit in the first place.
But Wolf says she'll come off as a tougher cookie in later episodes, which include a two-part Law & Order crossover during the November ratings sweeps.
L&A cast members -- including newcomer Jesse L. Martin, who replaces Benjamin Bratt -- will pop up during the first six episodes, but unlike Law & Order, SVU's cops won't hand off cases to the lawyers in mid-show.
"It's a sibling, not a clone," Wolf says. "It's a different show with a different set of characters."
SVU also has a different, earlier timeslot, despite Wolf's vocal efforts to convince NBC to move it to 9 p.m. Although it deals with the aftermath of crimes and the actual violence is never shown, he says parents should take note: It's for adults only.

Law & Organs
Claire Bickley, Toronto Sun, 9.20.99

Memo to Dick Wolf, executive producer of Law & Order: How many ways can you say "penis," Dick?
As many as necessary to make a point, apparently.
When that vaunted long-running legal drama's first spinoff series premieres tonight, it does so with an episode that may be as much about Wolf's unhappiness with its scheduling as with creative concerns.
That's a shame, because it may be viewers, rather than network suits, who take his point -- and turn away.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit was bought by NBC without a pilot episode. The network scheduled it at 9 p.m., which Wolf considers to be one hour too early for a show about an NYPD sex crimes squad, even without figuring in the fact that 9 p.m. ET means it will air at 8 p.m. in Central and Mountain time zones in the U.S. He wanted NBC to shift one of its ubiquitous Dateline editions to 9 and give him its spot. NBC said no. (CTV is airing the show Mondays at 10.)
So Wolf produced the first episode titled -- and this probably isn't an accident either -- Payback.
How hardcore is it? Let it speak for itself.
"Whoever did this sliced off his cigar and took it with him. Is that specific enough for you?" a detective explains of the crime du jour, a cab driver's castration murder (or "dismemberment," as our TV magazine listings call it).
There are also references to another man's "shortcomings," his "flag," and even the non-euphemistic "penis." Then there's all that self-conscious licorice stick munching going on at the precinct.
When one cop jokes to a female officer that Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer, reprising his Homicide: Life On The Street role), that "John doesn't eat vegetables," she replies, "Not the only thing he never gets to -- (two beat pause) -- eat."
During an interview with police, an art gallery owner describes a male prostitute thusly: "Unfortunately, (he's) a disgusting little piece of street-meat, but he has an extremely gifted orifice in the middle of his face."
It must be possible to tread the territory of sex crimes investigators without being this aggressively gamey. Unless you're trying to attract the sickest audience available. Or make a network blink.

Mariska Hargitay TV Guide Online Interview
10.11.99

TV Guide Online: Joining us right now is Mariska Hargitay from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Thanks for coming to chat.
Hargitay: I'd like to say hi to everyone!! And I'm so glad you like the show!
Question: Did you do any research in preparation for your current role?
Hargitay: Yes I did. I read several books for it and I went down to the Sex Crimes division at the NYPD and interviewed cops and spent a lot of time with actual sex times officers. Chris is here everybody. But he's leaving!
Meloni: We watch the show every Monday night together.
Question: What is it like performing opposite Chris Meloni? Is he a pit bull or a teddy bear?
Hargitay: Sweetheart, he's a pitbull and a teddy bear if you know what I mean! He's the most fun I've every worked with. The most incredible actor. And we have so much fun. Chris, his wife and a couple of friends come over and we watch it every Monday night. We also have the same sense of humor so there is a lot of comic relief on the set. It's such a serious show so we need the comedy. We bonded from our senses of humor.
Question: Mariska, Will your character lighten up as the series continues, or remain tough as nails? Either way, incredible job!
Hargitay: First of all, thank you so much. And I think she is tough as nails, you have to be that tough to do this kind of work. But as you can see she is also a sensitive empathetic and feeling human being. As well as being a professional detective. I think as we get to know the characters more, we might get more into her personal life. Maybe go out on a date with her or something! But yes, as we get to know these characters, I think a more personal side will emerge. But right know we're focusing more on the personal side of the characters, and their competency as detectives.
Question: When can we expect the first full crossover between the two Law & Order shows?
Hargitay: Oh absolutely. The cross over, I think we're shooting it November, I think it airs in Feb. I know there are definitely two crossovers planned, but log onto NBC or TVGUIDE for details.
Question: On the show, Chris Meloni wore bikini briefs. Do you know if this is what he wears in real life?
Hargitay: I hate to say this, but I don't think he wears underwear. He travels free and easy if you know what I mean. Now, I'm not sure, but that's what he said.
Question: Who is your role model?
Hargitay: I don't have a role model, really. I think that there are certain aspects of different people that I sort of respect and emulate. But there are quite a few people in that category. I don't really have a role model. Jesus would be one. But those are pretty big shows to fill so I do what I can.
Question: Hey. I was wondering, is the episode that just aired taken from an actual case?
Hargitay: I don't know. They are all pretty much pulled from the papers. Most of them are based in truth. But the show takes poetic license. They stem from a real life story that they then alter.
Question: In the movie Lake Placid, what is the most memorable part, if any that you participated in?
Hargitay: I had a really small part in it, so maybe you are ribbing me! I took the part because I knew the director, I'm a big David Kelly fan, and mostly I wanted to work with Bridget Fonda.
Question: Mariska will u be doing promotional work in NYC?
Hargitay: I'm doing a movie called Prison Song. It's a movie with Q-Tip and Elvis Costello. Darnel Martin is directing.
Question: What do you do in you extra time?
Hargitay: Travel. To Italy.
Question: What is it like to watch yourself on TV? Are you critical of your acting?
Hargitay: Extremely. Chris and I watch the show together every week, and as happy as we are with the show, we are constantly fine-tuning our performances. Trying to learn from it, and find things you can do better. It's hard to watch yourself I have to say. It's hard not to be critical. But the show is so good, I would watch it if I wasn't on it.
Question: Mariska, just got through watching tonight's show - was the rock climbing exercise for the show or do you really do that?
Hargitay: I actually, that was my first time, I did it a few times for the show. But I've since fallen in love with it, and do it while I can. But I was really doing all the rock climbing in the show tonight.
Question: Who is your favorite actor or actress to work with?
Hargitay: Chris. Chris and I have a sort of unbelievable chemistry, on the screen and off. From the moment we first met, we felt as if we had known each other our whole lives. We have the same sense of humor, and the same love and commitment to acting. We hang out a lot when we're not working, even though we're together all the time. I've very close with his wife, Sherman, it's just a huge blessing that we get on so well. I'm close with the whole cast; Richard Belzer is a real sweetheart and so fun to work with
Question: Is she going to have any love interests on the show?
Hargitay: Definitely. As time goes on, we're going to venture into those waters.
Question: I love your character's look! Quite a change from ER, that was such a great character too, but much less sophisticated looking.
Hargitay: Yes. Thank you so much, and I really wanted to do something different after ER. The next part I played I wanted to be the polar opposite of the character I played there. That's an actor's dream.
Question: When will we get to see more of Richard Belzer and Dean Winters?
Hargitay: I think so. They are writing a lot for them.
Question: What's it like working with Angie Harmon?
Hargitay: I don't really get to work with her that much. But I really like her. She's a great girl. Fabulous sexy voice. And I look forward to working with her more on the crossover episodes. She's a real Texas girl.
Question: Can I have a pic of u signed?
Hargitay: Yes, absolutely. Write to NBC in New York. There's a website also. I think I also have a website someone set up if you want to leave messages or whatever.
Question: What kind of music do you listen to?
Hargitay: I like to listen to all kinds. I just got back from Philadelphia from seeing Bruce Springsteen. I've seen him in the last month. My love for him has been rekindled. I like Sean Colvin. Sam Phillips. Natalie Merchant. I like every kind of music. Depends on what mood I'm in. I love the Stones. David Bowie. I love so much new music. It depends. It's a mood thing. I love jazz a lot and lately I've been getting into classical music.
Question: Can you possibly tell us what some of the near future shows are base on? Since the advertisements says the stories are ripped from the headlines.
Hargitay: One of the cool upcoming stories, there's kind of a Lolita type story next week. There's an episode called "Stalked". Where I get stalked. There's a college basketball story of a girl that gets raped in college. There is a sort of Russian episode dealing with a murder in Brighton
Beach.
Question: how do you handle the horror of some of these stories?
Hargitay: Like I said, there is a lot of levity on the set, and we try to have as much comic relief as we can. But it's hard, and I do end up taking some of it home. I feel like a lot of mind and brain have changed. I have a lot more fear when I walking down the street. Or I see people and I think of where they come from or what could have happened to them. It makes you wonder a little more, you analyze people more.
Question: I am a true Law & Order fan, will there be a court portion in these episodes?
Hargitay: We have little court scenes every week. But that's not where the show focuses. It's more the order part than the law. The show focuses more on the detectives and how these crimes effect their lines than on how the crimes effect the justice system.
Question: Do you love your co-workers?
Hargitay: I love my co-workers and I love my crew.
Question: As the show is getting off the ground, all of the characters are slowly being introduced. Is the plan for you & your costar to be the main characters, or will everyone have an equal role?
Hargitay: Well I think that the way itís sort of been is that Chris and I have been the leading detectives on the show. The way it's been written, you see the stories through our eyes. I think we'll grow to get to know the other characters too.
Question: I noticed in the first episode that your characters mother Elizabeth Ashley had an accent. Where is she supposedly from and where did her rape take place, that conceived your character?
Hargitay: All will be revealed. Sorry, I can't answer that now!
Question: Who would you choose as your leading man ?(in a movie)
Hargitay: Kevin Spacey. He's my favorite actor right now. Also I'd like to work with Tom Hanks, Robert DeNiro is just a god, so... who doesn't want to work with him.
Question: Did you watch Law and Order before you got this role?
Hargitay: Not as much as I do now! I had class on Wednesday nights, so I never got to see it! I was an ER aficionado though. But now that's been all turned around!
Question: On the set of SVU, how do you kill time while you're not filming?
Hargitay: Work on the scripts. Tell jokes with Chris. Call my friends in LA because I just recently moved to New York. I'm born and raised in LA. Read. Try to read. There's so much to do but it never all gets done because we work like 15-hour days. I'm pretty much on the set all the time. There is not a lot of downtime.
Question: What's your reaction to Rosie O'Donnell's criticism of the show?
Hargitay: We think it's so funny. Because she doesn't like the show but she - Likes Oz, which doesn't make any sense because it's more violent than our show. Our show picks up after the crime has happened. But she loves Chris Meloni and Dean Winters, so if she tunes in a few times, hopefully she'll become a fan. God Bless Michael J. Fox! Chris and I are both going on the show so hopefully we're going to turn her around. Cause we love her! But I think that we deal with the material in a responsible way. So I'm proud of the show.
Question: What number episode are you currently working on for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit?
Hargitay: We're on 11.
Question: How do you cope being the only woman in a cast of full of guys?
Hargitay: I love it! I love it! I love it! I get all the attention and its' really fun. I grew up with a family full of brothers so I feel right at home. And all the guys make me feel like a princess. I love it!
Question: In scenes where you and Chris are in a car, how do they decide who drives?
Hargitay: LOL! He just drives. He usually drives out of chivalry. And I drive in some of the upcoming ones when he's dealing with a perp or a victim. But I love that question! I'm glad you're paying attention. Do you think I should be driving more! Maybe I should drive more! I'm going to drive more!
Question: About the movie with Q-tip when will u start filming in NYC?
Hargitay: I believe I shoot Oct. 23 and 24.
Question: Do you think your work in ER led to getting this role ?
Hargitay: I don't know the answer to that. I went in and read for this part. I auditioned for it. I am sure it had a little to do with it, but I don't know. I had so many auditions and getting a role like this is such a process that you always think that just in and of itself is enough. But one never knows for what reasons people make decisions.
Question: Have you ever done Broadway?
Hargitay: No I haven't and it's one of my dreams.
Question: I JUST FINISHED WATCHING YOUR SHOW AND YOU ADD A LOT TO IT...YOUR MOTHER WOULD BE PROUD OF YOU.
Hargitay: Oh, thank you so much, I hope so!
TV Guide Online: Thanks for chatting with us Mariska.
Hargitay: Thanks so much. Love chatting! Love to do it again! The shows keep getting better and better so stay tuned. God bless you all. Thank you all so much for your support. And let's chat again soon! XOXO Marish!
TV Guide Online: We'd love to have you back again soon. Goodnight.

"Special Victims Unit" Puts A Dark Twist on "Law & Order"
Bill Tush, CNN Entertainment News, 10.12.99

NEW YORK (CNN) -- For almost 10 years, "Law & Order" has been bringing the criminal justice system into the living rooms of NBC viewers on a weekly basis. This season, the show spawned a spin-off. Like the original, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" takes crimes from the streets of New York City to its courtrooms with the help of an ensemble cast.
But if you tune into "Special Victims Unit" (on Monday nights at 9 p.m. ET), be prepared to see and hear some things you would not see on the original.
"There's a division in most major police departments called, 'Special Victims Unit,' which is what sex crimes are euphemistically called," explains actor Richard Belzer. "They're considered the most heinous crimes, when not only do you violate somebody, but you violate them sexually. So it's an elite squad that takes care of that."
Belzer joins the unit as Det. John Munch -- yes, the same Munch he played for seven years on the Baltimore-based cop show "Homicide," which was done in by poor ratings at the end of last season.
Although ratings for his latest venture aren't outstanding -- FOX's "Ally McBeal" and CBS's "Everybody Loves Raymond" regularly beat the fledgling show -- "Special Victims Unit" is at least keeping apace with another NBC freshman, "West Wing," and beating NBC newbie "Third Watch."
The ensemble cast of which Belzer is now a part includes Dann Florek, who played Capt. Donald "Donnie" Cragen on "Law & Order" for three seasons. Cragen has now joined the special unit.
"I think to shine a light on these kinds of problems is very important and a good thing," Florek says. "We're still living at a time when a lot of rapes go unreported because the victims feel ashamed. ... I think the more we can do to bring these things to light -- we're saying we're all with you."
Making up the rest of the unit are Dean Winters, as Munch's partner, Det. Brian Cassidy -- Winters says his character is like Munch's "protege, he's trying to get me in all this conspiracy" -- Christopher Meloni as Det. Elliot Stabler, and Mariska Hargitay as Det. Olivia Benson.
"It's been quite an education doing this show and living in New York at the same time, and being exposed to so many different kinds of people," says Hargitay, a Los Angeles transplant. "It really changes your mental state." Is she referring to the people in New York, or on the show? "Both," she replies, laughing.
Many of the cast have ways to divert themselves from the often gritty scripts. Meloni lifts weights. Florek fills his TV office with family photos -- "It's centering," he says.
And, Hargitay has a photo of screen legend -- and Hargitay's real-life mother -- Jayne Mansfield on her desk, too, ensuring that it won't always be so dark in the special victims unit.

Busted!
Melodramatic and ill-conceived, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is so bad, it's a crime
Joyce Millman, Salon.com, 10.18.99

"Law & Order" is an efficient and hard-boiled police procedural if ever there was one. With a half-hour allotted to perp-catching and a half-hour allotted to the swift prosecution of cases, "L&O" barely has time for characters to catch their breath, never mind search their souls. Compared to the operatic emotionalism of "NYPD Blue" and the Dylanesque vision that was "Homicide: Life on the Street," "Law & Order" is a Woody Guthrie folk song -- plain, terse and packing a wallop.
How to describe, then, the tear-jerking bombast and in-your-face confessionalism of its woeful spin-off, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"? Imagine Celine Dion duetting with Paula Cole -- cranked up to 11.
Sure, it looks like "Law & Order" -- same opening credits, same theme song, same clanging cell door sound effect at the top of every scene, weekly cameos from "Law & Order" regulars like Jerry "Briscoe" Orbach and Angie "Carmichael" Harmon. But it doesn't feel like "Law & Order." It's melodramatic and manipulative, splattered with awkward attempts at comedy and lacking in the original's cool dignity. The cases (daddy-daughter incest, Bosnian war crime rapes, the serial killing of prostitutes) aren't necessarily seamier than the ones that turn up on "Law & Order," but the treatment of them is flashier, grabbier.
Worst of all, "L&O: SVU" violates the first law of "Law & Order" -- it shifts the focus from the process of police work to the personal lives of cops. I mean, it has taken viewers years to glean background information about the characters on "Law & Order"; they reveal tidbits of opinions and problems on the fly, while they go about their business. But, already, a scant month after its debut, we know much, much more than we need to about the sex crime detectives of "L&O: SVU."
Det. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) was conceived during a rape (we learned that in episode one), which, I guess, is supposed to explain why she seems to have trouble maintaining a professional reserve -- one minute, she's crying empathetic tears, the next, she's going off at suspects like a loose cannon. Capt. Donald Cragen (Dann Florek), a "Law & Order" castoff welcomed back into the fold here, has had a drinking problem ever since his wife died in a plane crash (tearful explanation, episode two). Det. Elliot Stabler (Chris Meloni) has adolescent daughters at home; being on this beat and seeing dead, raped girls turn up every day gives him plenty to worry about. How can he protect his girls' innocence if, indeed, they're still innocent? "L&O:SVU" makes you yearn for the original, where cops punch in, punch out and somehow manage to refrain from weeping at their desks late into the night.
All of this jacked-up melodrama is surrounded by "Homicide"-wannabe flourishes, like jarring shots of crime scenes and autopsy tables and (not quite clever enough) breezy cop sarcasm. The result is a show that's simultaneously soggy and crisp -- not an appealing combination however you slice it. "L&O: SVU" also has one of TV's most bizarre -- and not in a good way -- ensemble casts ever. Meloni, who had memorable guest roles on "NYPD Blue" and "Homicide" and is also on HBO's prison drama "Oz," is an undeniable star. He looks like a young Robert De Niro and he has De Niro's whispery voice and his unsettling, unhinged glimmer about the eyes -- which is why it's really, really hard to accept Meloni's character as a nice, normal, devoted, suburban family man. Still, Meloni is the single reason to keep watching "L&O: SVU" -- if only for the episode, maybe a season down the road, where Elliot Stabler snaps and turns into Kevin Spacey in "American Beauty."
Adding to the overall sense of woozy displacement you get watching "L&O: SVU" is the fact that Meloni is joined here by his fellow cast-mate from "Oz," Dean Winters. What night is it? What am I watching? A bad-ass thug on "Oz," Winters is wasted as comic relief on "L&O"; he plays Det. Brian Cassidy, who's new on the squad and a bit of a dunce. He has a hard time keeping all the sex crime terminology straight. He says "fromage" when he means "frottage." Stranger still is Richard Belzer reprising his eccentric "Homicide" character, Det. John Munch. What's a member of the Baltimore murder po-lice doing on a sex crimes squad in New York City (besides the obvious fact that his old show was canceled)? In the "L&O: SVU" pilot, Munch explained that he fled Baltimore after his bride, Billie Lou, ran off with his fellow detective, Stu Gharty. Munch has vowed never to set foot in Charm City again.
On "Homicide," it never seemed to make much sense, Munch being a cop; he was an ex-hippie, an old anti-war protestor who enjoyed his weed. But, for a long time, Munch was an integral element of "Homicide," providing a dash of old-fashioned liberal conscience and a pinch of Jewish soul. Toward the end of the show's run, though, Munch was spouting monologues, not dialogue; Belzer simply stood around doing his government-conspiracy-rant stand-up act, whether anybody was listening or not. And this is the past-sell-date Munch we get on "L&O:SVU." Belzer serves up the hipster ravings, but nobody here is volleying; they just look at him like he's nuts.
Belzer has already played Munch on an episode of "The X-Files" and on two "Law & Order"/"Homicide" crossovers; he's also reportedly going to guest star as Munch on "Homicide" producer Tom Fontana's upcoming UPN cop series, "The Beat," and in a "Homicide" TV movie planned for next spring (guess Munch will have to recant his vow never to return to Baltimore). As a "Homicide" fan, I'm finding it just a wee bit painful to watch Belzer become the equivalent of Fat Elvis, hauling out the white jumpsuit that is John Munch again and again and again. Let it go, Belzer, for the love of God! Munch serves no discernible purpose, cop-wise, on "L&O:SVU" -- so far, his duties seem limited to fetching donuts and baby sitting Det. Cassidy. Munch has become a cartoon character in search of a frame. Tucked away at his desk in the corner, babbling about JFK and the grassy knoll, he's devoid of context, time, place, meaning. He's like one of those living, disembodied celebrity heads in a jar on "Futurama." Uh-oh, I see another guest spot coming ...