The author calls this "a commentary on SVU, sparked by things not appearing any better when seen in reruns.... Nonfiction, no language, no sex, just disappointment..." Enjoy -- and be sure to write and let us know if you agree or disagree with her!
Six Things I Hate About (SV)U:
Preventive measures to rescue Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
By Saffron Bailey
When it was announced that Law & Order was getting a spin-off, those of us who were fans of the original series cheered. Twice the intelligent cop drama!
When it was announced that the cast would include Richard Belzer's character John Munch, a refugee of the late and very lamented Homicide: Life on the Street, we cheered again. Munch is a treat alone, but the chemistry between Belzer and Jerry Orbach's Lennie Briscoe is wonderful.
When it was announced that the rest of the cast would include Christopher Meloni and Dean Winters, both of Oz, we raised a third cheer. Clothes on this time, but a chance to catch two wonderfully versatile and subtle actors on free TV should be a cause for celebration.
It's not. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is terrible. It has taken the worst traits of some of the other popular cop shows -- NYPD Blue, Nash Bridges -- and none of the spectacular ones that make the original Law & Order so intriguing.
The ratings for the show are better than okay, so something is obviously working. But with the January shift to Friday nights, NBC is going to see a change in audience demographics. Fans of the show itself, not just the folks who have their TV on every Monday night and will watch anything that's not football, will count more. You need a following to survive on Friday nights at 10, when even casual TV watchers often find something better to do. Belzer, the "Homicide" refugee, can tell you all about that.
Here, then, are some things, in no particular order, that Dick Wolf and company can do to improve SVU and make it ready for its Friday night timeslot.
1 -- Get rid of Mariska Hargitay. Okay, so this happens to be everyone's first suggestion. Ms. Hargitay is probably not a bad actress and I've seen good reviews of her work elsewhere, but she is completely out of her element here. First, her attempts to act tough lack all subtlety and grace. She walks like a truck driver, talks like a Sarah Lawrence student reading bad prose, and has the overdramatic body language of someone doing theatre in a large auditorium.
The character of Olivia Benson is poorly written, but Ms. Hargitay does nothing to alleviate this. A different actor might be able to generate some chemistry between Stabler and Benson, who have obviously been partnered long enough to know each other very well, but can't seem to connect on a non-verbal level. There are no eye-contact communications, no gestures, nothing to indicate that these two detectives are on the same plane of understanding. This is as much the writers' fault as Hargitay's -- the limited attempts at comradeship are always written for Meloni's character, and Stabler does seem to try -- but, still...
2 -- Find consistency and dimension for the characters. The writers should stop, pause, and develop each character before setting fingers to keyboard. In each character -- even the overwrought Olivia Benson -- there is the basis for an interesting and believable personal plot line. But not the way things have been handled.
For example, if Meloni's Elliot Stabler is supposed to be bemusedly lamenting his utter domesticity, the obvious result of fifteen years in what was originally a shotgun marriage, show some counterpoint. Eighteen-year-old guys who knock up their girlfriends don't turn into the egalitarian, enlightened sensitive men that Stabler too often appears, at least not without much shock therapy. Sure, he gets to look utterly lost when confronting his teenaged and adolescent daughters' problems, but there's another side buried deep within Stabler that has so far remained unrealized. Meloni has proven elsewhere that he can handle adding depth and texture without turning Stabler into a harnessed macho pig.
3 -- Remember that these are detectives, not teenagers. The difference between this Law & Order and the original one is that we are going to see more of the reactions of the detectives. Fine, it's a wonderful idea, but stop making everything seem like a scene from Felicity.
This is supposed to be a show about police officers who are emotionally mature enough to handle crimes of a personal and horrible nature. Yet they are all shown overreacting to everything. Olivia Benson can't seem to handle rape victims, Monique Jeffries (Michelle Hurd) can't handle racism, Brian Cassidy can't handle sexual deviancy (?!), and even if Elliot Stabler is otherwise a pretty functional father, all we ever see is him in domestic crisis. These are grown-ups, guys, write them like that.
4 -- Pare down the cast or switch over to multiple plotlines. This falls under two subheadings:
a) Find something for Detectives Munch (Belzer) and Cassidy (Winters) to do, or get rid of them. If Munch is going to play the equivalent of L&O's Detective Profaci -- i.e., the occasional one-scene comic foil -- then don't list him with the main actors. Dean Winters has thus far been utterly wasted, "fromage" scene notwithstanding. Any Homicide fan could tell you that the possibility of John Munch having a partner who likes him, let alone worships him the way Cassidy is supposed to, is a sea change. Munch spent seven seasons getting abused on Homicide, so let him publicly bask in Cassidy's glow here. The writers have been handed a great gift -- a comic specializing in put-downs and his own personal whipping boy -- and refuse to use it. Give them a case, let Benson and Stabler help them out for once, and watch a dynamic that we have only caught glimpses of blossom like a rose. Especially since there seems to be no matching spark between Benson and Stabler.
b) Get rid of Detectives Jeffries and Briscoe Junior. Two reasons here. First, the cast is too big. The writers have enough trouble wedging Munch and Cassidy into occasional scenes, so six detectives is already four too many. Jeffries and Briscoe have gone nine episodes without a single significant moment, so it's time to evolve them out.
The second reason is that the characters themselves are annoying. Detective Briscoe's big moment was his one scene where he too-cheerfully pisses off his Uncle Lennie. Detective Jeffries (Michelle Hurd) has proven to be nothing more than a token minority bitch. To use more Homicide references, she displays all the ditzy mannerisms of Laura Ballard, but coupled with a hollow mockery of Frank Pembleton's righteous indignation. The bitchiness is forced -- what has John Munch done to her in the three months since he arrived from Baltimore that all she can ever do is snipe at him? There is no explanation (seen or implied) ever given for her attitude, so she comes across as just a randomly nasty man-hater (see the rock-climbing scene). If you need a black actor, get one as the soon-to-be-arriving ADA for Sex Crimes. Diversity is necessary, but not at this cost.
5 -- A realistic existence would be nice. I'm not just talking about not telegraphing moves (the turn for the pathos in the episode "A Single Life" could be seen by the second commercial break), but more operational stuff. You don't have to be a New Yorker to know that there is more than one open Sex Crimes case at a time in the borough of Manhattan. Why are Munch, Cassidy, Jeffries, and Briscoe always hanging out with nothing more important to do than do Benson and Stabler's legwork? Do they not have their own cases? Does Captain Cragen not mind that they sit around all day or that Stabler and Benson never have to do the boring stuff like sift through files and interview potential sources of information?
6 -- Get your locations chosen by someone who actually lives in New York. The need to make up addresses and place names is understandable, but it is inexcusable to use easily identifiable sites for purposes that they are not intended. Two of the more egregious examples:
a) The Grace Building on 42nd and 5th is recognizable to almost every New Yorker ("you know, the ski-slope building across the street from Bryant Park") as the home of offices and the former partial residence of the CUNY Graduate Center. There is no reason Munch and Cassidy would be visiting a coffee importer there. If Empire Imports on 42nd and 9th wouldn't let you use their shop, find another coffee joint that would.
b) Benson and Cassidy visit a nefarious Wall Street investor, but then step outside and head to their car with Hunter College's campus clearly distinguishable in the background. Hunter straddles the corners of 68th and Lexington. Not only is this a good twenty minute subway ride north of the financial district, it's also the most expensive residential area in the entire city. You don't rent massive amounts of office space there, not only because you can't afford it, but also because it doesn't exist.
Ironically, personal space locations -- Benson's apartment, the Stabler residence -- should be granted more leeway but really don't need it here. Benson dresses too nice for someone on a detective's salary, so it makes sense that she lives in an area that a detective couldn't afford and in an apartment the size and modernity of which most New Yorkers couldn't afford. You can justify this (she comes from money, went into the detective business to avenge her mom's rape, yadda, yadda, yadda) if you actually tried. Stabler's home looks real enough.
SVU will never be a New York version of Homicide, but it shouldn't be the campy self-parody that it is. There is some true potential in some of the story lines, little things that make you angry because they are never followed up. Gestures, moments, an occasional bon mot, a plot twist that could have been handled better, whatever it is that makes SVU frustrating because you are that much more aware of its shortcomings.
Because of the casting, there are too many connections to Tom Fontana's spectacular writing work on Homicide and Oz to make mental comparisons anything but unavoidable and SVU suffers greatly for this. Even the vastly different tact taken with original Law & Order puts SVU in a poor light. L&O has proven that one-dimensional characters can work, but this is because those one-dimensional characters are really holograms -- they look 3-D if you see them from the right angle. SVU must either find that special angle or work much harder to create those extra two dimensions, or else it will wither away to nothing.