Last night, I bit the bullet and watched the Law & Order: SVU episode that featured the return of Elliot Stabler (portrayed by Christopher Meloni), followed by his premiere spin-off, Law & Order: Organized Crime. I have watched just about every episode of SVU, and the lack of Stabler has been felt in every episode he hasn’t been in since his departure a decade ago.
The episodes premiered on April 1, and the return of Stabler into the world of Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) was short-lived but impactful.
We weren't ready for this moment. pic.twitter.com/LEmTQgbU6T
— NBC Entertainment (@nbc) April 6, 2021
Some of the reviews for Organized Crime were not the most flattering. Vulture calls it “not what we need from Law & Order.” USAToday says it’s “not Law & Order.” The New York Times says it “felt generic, cursorily plotted and filled out with thin and unconvincing characters.”
However, the underlying theme in many of these reviews – hinted at, but never fully addressed – is what the Vulture piece called the “copaganda” of the show. The idea that police are the good guys and criminals are the bad guys in all cases, and how Stabler, who is the epitome of the bad behaviors many critics of law enforcement point to, is hugely problematic in 2021. You can tell these writers want to like Law & Order, but the character portrayed so excellently by Meloni is something they don’t want to deal with in 2021, and premiering at the same time as the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who knelt on the neck of George Floyd for the last nine minutes of Floyd’s life.
But, while the critics don’t wish to see a traditionally violence-first cop hailed as a hero, the tragic circumstances that brought Elliot back into the mainstream – a car bombing that took the life of his wife, Kathy – appear meant to force Stabler to address these problems head-on.
His personnel file is referenced multiple times. Six shootings in his time in NYPD, including the shooting that led him to retire. A history of getting violent with suspects. Instability in his personal life. It all has to be confronted as Stabler’s first on-screen case with the organized crime unit deals directly with the figure most likely responsible for his wife’s death.
The idea of a tragic or imperfect hero is not new in the world of television or storytelling, but it is a trope that makes Stabler so compelling, especially now. A man who routinely broke the rules for years as a police officer at a time when it was, at best, something you just looked away from is now being forced to admit that times have changed and he can no longer get away with any of that. But, at the same time, he will continue to come as close to that line as possible. You keep waiting for that moment when he’s going to snap, and you almost root for it.
Not because you want to see a cop get violent with a suspect, but because you want to see if he’ll overcome it. You want him to fall so you can cheer for him to get up again.
With the social justice movement (almost) silently cheering for Law & Order to go away, the new series is disheartening for them, and Stabler’s presence makes it worse because he is everything they hate in a cop but is portrayed as a hero nonetheless. The fact is, however, that his flaws are what make him compelling, and we want to see him not be violent with suspects but grow as a person. That is the emotional response that we have every time we see him going up against a criminal.
The show is still very new. A departure from the classic feel of Law & Order (including a lack of the DUN DUN sound effect) makes the name feel off, but the emotional impact is there. You will want to at least see Stabler’s story through to the end. Given that organized crime is a major operation, don’t expect a weekly procedural that gets wrapped up neatly in a bow every week. Stories will take longer to tell as the tangled webs of these criminal networks are unwoven. But, at the end of it all, we’re in it to see the criminals taken down, and in this case, we’re in it to see Elliot Stabler at least find some closure.