2 out of 5
Created by: Dick Wolf, Ilene Chaiken, Matt Olmstead
covers season 1
Law & Order, in my mind, will always be the O.G. procedural. You have likely seen many more episodes than I have, but I’ve seen enough to know the beats and the general “flavor” of the show. It always seemed reliable, for what it was, and offered (for this – at the time – casual TV viewer) more entertaining drop-in / drop-out episodes than almost any other long-running series; I really didn’t have to care when turning it on, but I could care if I wanted to. It’s forever been on my list of one of those shows I should really watch start to finish at some point, like, before I die. The other mainline Law & Orders mostly had a similar vibe from what I’ve seen, though I haven’t seen them all.
And then SVU was the other L&O brand. It also had that same long-running pedigree, and I’ve caught episodes here and there (and, as many seem to, have some inborne affection for Christopher Meloni that I can’t source to any particular cause), but it carried a slightly cheaper tone. I can’t, specifically, say why, and perhaps is just a consequence of the time in when it came out, which also produced something like CSI – an era when primetime television was bridging the gap to the modern age and becoming relatively flashy and more “adult;” the lessons learned from that time have stuck with the shows that’ve continued on since then. Still, also falls under the general catchall L&O umbrella of series I want to fully watch at some point.
So now that I’m an active TV viewer, being offered the opportunity to jump on board a new Law & Order series at its starting point, which stars Christopher Meloni – well, I’m game, even if it’s a spinoff of that cheap SVU variant.
But the show arrives at a strange time for a tough, white cop procedural, and it’s m.o. to tackle Organized Crime in a season-long arc – as opposed to episodic cases – is not only a shambles of attempts at topical subject matter, but also completely confused as to what tone it’s aiming for, and how much it wants to be a show for new viewers versus SVU followers.
Elliot Stabler (Meloni) has returned to the NY force after the murder of his wife, and wants to be his usual rogue self in finding those killers, but gets the ol “this ain’t your case” treatment, and is paired up with Sergeant Ayanna Bell (Danielle Moné Truitt) on the Organized Crime task force instead. This is an immediately weird runaround, as the show takes 0 moments to convince us that Stabler is actually a good cop, quality wise – he seems all unhinged and illogical to start – and the redirect does nothing to make this task force seem legit, as opposed to just a background detail to whatever Elliot will be doing. But no, we let the dead wife sink into the background so secret mobster / CEO Richard Wheatley (Dylan McDermott) can be investigated for the very timely crime of selling COVID-19 vaccines. TV’s attempts at incorporating vaccine storylines have been admirable, but the scheduling is tough, and they’ve hit slightly offmark in many cases – this being one of them. Because the show assumes you understand the context of COVID, just like it assumes you cared about Stabler and his wife, there’s no in-story setting of stakes for what Wheatley’s actions mean, and it unfortunately comes across a little silly. As this is also mixed up with blips of Stabler dealing with PTSD – he IS sad about his wife, y’all! – and pokes and prods at race and representation issues – Bell is a black lesbian! – Organized Crime never gets to settle in to any vibe, stuttering between building its characters, allowing McDermott to seem mustache-twirling evil, and trying to offer up procedural goodness in each episode.
In the back half of the short, 8-episode first season, when a lot of this setup nonsense is taken care of and Stabler and Bell get to focus a bit more on catching Wheatley with his hands dirty, things get a bit better, suggesting we might find our way to some cheesier, less heavy-handed goodness eventually, but that brevity also means the creative team goes overboard trying to punch up the conclusion in some way, which just brings us back to the somewhat blustery, nonsensical tone with which we started.
A confirmed season 2 has 20+ episodes to run with, so hopefully the extra room will give the show some space to better find its footing sooner, and more consistently.