The first three episodes of this season's Law & Order --"Gunshow," "Killerz," and "DNR" -- have been nothing short of brilliant. I write this as a Law & Order fan, and as a relatively new one at that, but I feel more than able to defend this assertion. Each of these episodes has been wonderfully written; the thematic content has been complicated and thought provoking; and each has featured outstanding acting performances from both cast regulars and guest stars. In light of this embarrassment of riches, it seems almost unfair to bring in a discussion of Special Victims Unit, a show which is clearly still trying to define itself, but that is exactly what I plan to do. The weaknesses of SVU have been forcefully discussed in many reviews, most recently by Joyce Millman ("Busted," Salon, October 18, 1999) and include a wide range of observations about the show's poor acting, bad writing, and its perverse underuse of fine actors like Christopher Meloni and Dean Winters. What I'd like to do here is to address some of the problems with SVU by looking at the strengths of the show that spawned it. In short, what can the this season's fine Law & Order episodes tell us about what's going wrong with Special Victims Unit? And can L&O offer any insight as to how or where SVU might turn to more positively define itself? Can the much-beloved older brother show help its sickly sibling to survive?
By way of answering these questions, I'll focus on one of the three great Law & Order episodes we've been offered thus far. In "DNR," (October 6, 1999), the shooting of a woman in a parking lot morphs first into a domestic drama involving a narcissistic and uncaring husband, then into a disturbing and moving examination of denial in personal relationships, and finally into the question of under what circumstances one's stated will to die should be honored. As is the case with all of my very favorite L&O episodes, the story becomes increasingly complex as it twists and deepens, and also much more emotionally resonant. At the end of "DNR," I was emotionally engaged with the characters and intellectually engaged by the various moral issues the episode had raised. For me, that signals great drama -- precisely what SVU has been lacking thus far.
I'm almost at a loss to describe the many reasons I loved "DNR" so much, but I have been able to isolate a few of them. First I'll discuss the acting. Guest star Lindsay Crouse is nothing short of incredible as Judge Denise Grobman. Crouse has always been excellent at portraying characters who have an icy and almost imperial sense of reserve about them; her performance in the film House of Games is one fine example. In "DNR," Crouse is asked to play an ice queen forced to melt, and the transformation is devastating. When we first see her in the hospital, she is queenly and judgelike: "I'm very tired," she says, dismissing Briscoe and Green with the tone of her voice as much as her words. As she becomes aware of the seriousness of her injuries and of the prosecutors' belief that her husband may well have shot her, Judge Grobman stubbornly refuses to accept these facts. Crouse is fierce and convincing as an intelligent woman desperately using denial to protect herself from further trauma. If we recognize that she is not thinking straight, we also shrink from judging her for so doing. Crouse shines most brightly, however, in the final courtroom scene (at the hearing to evaluate her competency as a witness for her husband's defense). As Jack McCoy forces her to admit that her defense of her husband is illogical, Judge Grobman breaks down in such an emotionally intense and painful fashion that it's nearly impossible not to sympathize with her.
Brilliant as Crouse is, however, hers is not the only stand-out performance in "DNR." Although his role is minimal in the episode, Jesse L. Martin as Detective Eddie Green is also amazing. As he and Briscoe question Walter Grobman (played by John Heard), the series of facial expressions and gestures Martin uses make the scene vibrant. He expresses subtle doubt, excitement, and concern all within the space of a few moments -- a subtle performance which worked far more effectively than the more bombastic style he used in interrogating the prime suspect in "Gunshow." S. Epatha Merkerson as Lieutenant Van Buren also proves that less can be more in her scenes in this episode. The quiet and collected sense of fury and intensity that she expresses while trying to convince the D.A.s that her detectives have indeed located a viable suspect speaks volumes more than an angry tirade or shouting would have done. Moving on to the major characters, of course Sam Waterston is expert as Jack McCoy. With McCoy, more is more, and Waterston continues to infuse his character with trademark intensity and fervor. Even Angela Harmon has managed to inject more emotion and life into her portrayal of Abbie Carmichael: her improvement in this role is perhaps a positive sign for those who would like to see Special Victims Unit improve.
Alas, SVU has not yet produced characters complex enough to produce the kind of performances which make L&O such a pleasure to watch. In fact, SVU has been unpleasantly marked by the thus-far unimpressive and implausible performance of Mariska Hargitay. The character of Olivia Benson is lacking in subtlety: She spends half of her air time yelling and the other half yelling louder. The show's writers have attempted to give her an interesting backstory -- Olivia was conceived in a rape -- but the way that Hartigay has portrayed this conflict (and perhaps she has been directed to do so) is through melodramatic and explosive emotional displays inappropriate to her role as a veteran detective in an "elite" unit of the NYPD. While police officers and detectives are indeed often emotionally affected by their jobs, by the time they have gained a certain amount of experience -- and certainly by the time they have been named to a unit known for its emotionally draining cases -- they have had to learn how to handle themselves with an appropriate amount of emotional distance and to focus on the cases at hand. In portraying Olivia as having so little control over her emotions, Hartigay makes her seem completely implausible: She would not, I imagine, last more than one week in most sex crimes units or most police departments in general. Female cops and detectives have to be far more competent and professional than Olivia Benson if they wish to succeed. Compared to the multilayered way in which Judge Grobman deals with very strong feelings in "DNR," Benson's excessive and predictable emotional explosions are cartoonish and inappropriate.
The other lead in SVU, Elliot Stabler, is played by Christopher Meloni, who is familiar to fans of Tom Fontana's HBO series Oz as the seductive and often cruel Christopher Keller. Anyone who has seen Meloni in this role knows that the man can indeed act, particularly when given good material to work with. Unfortunately, Stabler's character is not well defined at this point, since so much of SVU's energies have been expended upon Benson. And the few character development scenes Stabler has been given have produced little in the way of interest. He has a large family with a typical adolescent daughter and a cute wife: so what? Frankly, Meloni seems bored out of his mind in this role: SVU needs to find a more compelling way to utilize his talents.
As I mentioned earlier, two supporting cast members, S. Epatha Merkerson and Jesse Martin, help to distinguish "DNR" with their fine acting. This is another of L&O's strengths: By skillfully integrating supporting players into the stories and by coaxing great acting performances out of them, the people of L&O have ensured not only that viewers will enjoy the supporting roles but that these roles are crucial to the telling of each story. In "Killerz," a dispute between Drs. Elizabeth Olivet and Emil Skoda serves to highlight one of the crucial themes of the episode. The disagreement between the psychiatrists is brief; however, the substance of the dispute illuminates a point important to the episode: It emphasizes precisely how conflicted and ill-equipped our society is when it comes to understanding children who are criminals. Skoda and Olivet are seamlessly integrated into the fabric of the show and their participation in it is significant. SVU, thus far, has no idea what to do with its two most obvious supporting characters -- Detectives John Munch (Richard Belzer) and Brian Cassidy (Dean Winters). These two have been used thus far mostly for comic relief (which isn't working well) and as assistants of a sort to Stabler and Benson. This is a sore waste of a potentially fascinating partnership: the contrast between Munch's world-weariness and Cassidy's open-eyed enthusiasm would work much better were these characters given more to do. Anyone who remembers Munch from Homicide knows that having a partner to worship him is like a dream come true; he loves the opportunity to pontificate, enlighten, and instruct. And Dean Winters is a great actor, as his incredible and creepy performance as plotter-extrordinaire Ryan O'Reilly on Oz indicates. It's frustrating to see such a fine performer and a beloved character from Homicide get only a few lines each
I'd like to see SVU take several lessons from L&O regarding the underused Munch/Cassidy partnership. SVU needs another main character pairing -- the exclusive focus on Benson and Stabler has thus far produced only tedium. Munch and Cassidy need to be used more consistently and intelligently -- either to highlight important thematic issues in the show, as Olivet and Skoda did in "Killerz," or, better still, to play a major role in the series. Part of the pleasure of watching L&O is in seeing two distinct partnerships at work, each with its own idiosyncrasies and conflicts. Munch and Cassidy should be given their own cases and their partnership should become a more important part of the show. This would relieve some of the pressure on the tepid relationship between principals Benson and Stabler, and could open an entirely new source for drama and pleasure in the show.
In wrapping up this discussion of what L&O can teach SVU, I'll turn to what for me is perhaps the best part of Law and Order: its stunning ability to thoroughly examine a theme from multiple viewpoints without making any final or simple pronouncements about it. "DNR," in my opinion, encourages viewers to think about the concept of judgment and the relationship between judgment and emotions. Through the character of Denise Grobman, the show demonstrates what happens when someone used to delivering supposedly impartial verdicts in her professional life is asked to make a painful judgment about someone very close to her (her husband). Her inability to judge her own husband demonstrates the powerful and confusing effect that strong emotions and desires have on decision making. When Grobman's capacity to make clear judgments is questioned by the prosecutors, the judge herself is judged, first by Dr. Skoda, and then in the competency hearing. When she breaks down on the stand, we see precisely how attached people can get to their own assessments and beliefs, as well as how such assessments are informed by a complex network of individual needs and wishes. Indeed, if the judge herself cannot or will not judge her situation accurately, we are asked to consider to what extent the judgments that any of us might make are informed by our own emotional ties and situations. Although Judge Grobman is declared incompetent to stand as a witness for her husband, her request that she be allowed to cease the medical treatment that would keep her alive is granted. That the court acknowledges and affirms this desire, which is perhaps also informed by Grobman's emotional confusion, is fascinating. Perhaps the death of the judge represents an attempt to bring about the death of the confusion about judgment that she embodies; or perhaps it shows that the courts themselves also often struggle to make fair and rational judgments, and that they sometimes fail. The competency hearing judge's speech is particularly significant in this regard: While indicating her deep friendship for Grobman, this judge nonetheless says that her professional duties require her to rule that she is not competent to stand as a witness. This is precisely the conundrum that the show began with: how can or should deep emotions affect judgment? We are offered no final answers, but we are invited to think deeply about the issue, which is perhaps the most satisfying resolution. SVU's most recent episode, "Wanderlust," clearly does have a theme in mind -- conflicting ideas about adolescent female sexuality -- but it is not successfully developed. The issue is mentioned in several contexts: Stabler confronts the emerging sexuality of his daughter Maureen; the prime suspect in the show, Virginia Hayes, is sexually active; and Benson admits that as a teenager she had an affair with a much older man. However, for me, these musings about teen sexuality never quite came together in a significant way; they were offered as minor character development for Stabler and Benson but did not produce a more interesting meditation on the issue. In order to become as effective as L&O, SVU will have to find a way to more evocatively present and examine themes and raise questions without giving into the lure of providing easy answers.
Any show with the name "Law & Order" in it has a lot to live up to, and so before I close, a few conciliatory words about SVU. It's still a very new show, and perhaps it hasn't yet had time to grow into itself. L&O, on the other hand, has had ten years for refinement. And several other strong series began with poor first seasons; I think in particular of Star Trek: The Next Generation. There may yet still be time for SVU to redeem itself, and I hope that it will do so, using the successes and strengths of L&O as guidelines.