(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
If you want an example of the TV cop whose supposed integrity is maintained in spite of procedural, ethical and moral lapses, consider Elliot Stabler. For 12 seasons of "Law And Order: SVU," Elliot raged and threatened and caught bad guys, and he still got to be drawn as the good guy. Now, after 10 years away, he's back.
AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
In "Law And Order: Organized Crime," Stabler is battling a wealthy, shadowy criminal and also recovering from a personal tragedy that's left him more angry than ever. I'm Aisha Harris.
HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're talking about "Law And Order: Organized Crime" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HOLMES: Welcome back. It is just me and Aisha today. Always a pleasure to be here with you, Aisha. A couple of things - first of all, not by design, we recorded this conversation last week on April 21, the day after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd. It's obviously a raw moment with a lot of things in flux that are relevant to this discussion, including other incidents of police violence that are still being investigated. We just kind of wanted to clarify what the timing is of this discussion.
Second of all, we did have a kind of basic discussion of the "Law And Order" universe in 2018. That episode is actually too old to be in your podcast feed, but you can find it at npr.org. We'll link to it in the newsletter. That's where your kind of Jerry Orbach discussion and stuff like that will be found.
In terms of what this show is - and we're going to spoil the beginning of it - Stabler, played by Chris Meloni, originally left very abruptly without even talking to his partner and his best friend, Olivia Benson, who's been holding down the fort at "SVU" now for 10 years since he left. Naturally, that departure had to do with Meloni's real-life contract negotiations breaking down back in 2011.
For the last 10 years, the story is that Elliot and Olivia haven't even spoken. Now he's reappeared, also without warning her, only to immediately suffer the loss of his wife Kathy, who "SVU" viewers have known for many years. Kathy died in a car bombing, and Elliot is now part of an organized crime unit focused on bringing down Dylan McDermott's rich jerk character, Richard Wheatley. And he's also, of course, now on a Liam Neeson movie-style revenge bender because of Kathy. Naturally, these two pursuits are connected. And the show is also very, very slowly rolling out the story of his relationship with Olivia being revived and revisited under these very weird and dark conditions.
I want to start with this question, Aisha. I know that you, like me, went back to Stabler as a character, after a significant break from this franchise, as part of looking at this new show. What did you take away from revisiting this guy in, like, 2021?
HARRIS: This is such a fascinating character to watch - not necessarily a fun character to watch. I stopped watching "SVU" after watching it devotedly from probably Season 1 or Season 2 up until I want to say around Season 17, 18 - so, like, five or six seasons ago. You know, I stuck around a little bit after Stabler left, and it just wasn't doing it for me. I think Stabler and Benson - that was the glue of the show. And so without him, it just doesn't have the same crackle. The relationship they had was just great.
Stabler, when I look back on him and having gone back and re-watched some episodes - you know, in this climate, it is troubling to see the way in which this show kind of made me complicit in this idea of the police even though I've never - you know, I've never been that type of person who's, rah-rah, police are going to save the day. I think...
HARRIS: ...The same conversations we've been having about all of these shows bubbled up to the surface again for me while re-watching these earlier episodes.
There's one episode in particular from "SVU" - it's Season 7 - where it really kind of shows the way in which policing is such an impenetrable force in some ways and the way in which they are able to sort of rally around each other and protect themselves to the detriment of the public who they are supposed to serve. And in this episode, he winds up having to arrest the son of a former colleague of his for allegedly attempting to assault a friend. And so he tells the victim and her parents, maybe you shouldn't press charges because it's just going to be worse for you.
And so there's a scene where Cragen, who's Stabler's boss, played by Dann Florek, comes up to him and basically - we've seen this scene many times in "SVU" where one of his bosses, usually Cragen, is dressing him down for something he shouldn't have done. Let's actually just hear a little clip of that from Season 7.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT")
DANN FLOREK: (As Donald Cragen) What are you doing? You told the Sawyers that Pamela's better off not making a complaint.
CHRISTOPHER MELONI: (As Elliot Stabler) Did Olivia tell you that?
FLOREK: (As Donald Cragen) No, Pamela's parents. This is worse than breaking the rules this time. You put the entire squad's credibility on the line.
MELONI: (As Elliot Stabler) Captain.
FLOREK: (As Donald Cragen) You did everything you could to get your ex-partner's kid a pass.
MELONI: (As Elliot Stabler) Captain.
FLOREK: (As Donald Cragen) As of right this minute, you are on vacation. Just get your ass out of my sight before I do something we both regret.
HARRIS: This happens so many times throughout "SVU" (laughter).
HOLMES: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
HARRIS: And then it happens again in "Organized Crime."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAW AND ORDER: ORGANIZED CRIME")
DAN ORESKES: (As Marv Moennig) What the hell, Elliot?
MELONI: (As Elliot Stabler) I just wanted to see their reaction when I said Lenski's name.
ORESKES: (As Marv Moennig) This isn't your house anymore. You can't just bust in and put your feet up on the table and do whatever you damn please.
MELONI: (As Elliot Stabler) Connection to Lenski is the first concrete evidence that we've got that I may have been targeted.
ORESKES: (As Marv Moennig) Which makes keeping you on this even more of a conflict for me. This program is my baby, Elliot. You know that. And a lot of people wanted to shut it down before I recruited you. You've been my poster boy for why this system works, but what happened at the courthouse this morning could have blown that all to hell.
HARRIS: But, like, because we're in 2021, the writers and the showrunners are attempting to sort of, like, gloss over it, even though they clearly don't think they're glossing over it. And I'd be curious to hear your thoughts, Linda, on, like, (laughter) the way in which they try to play this up in "Organized Crime."
HOLMES: You know, this has been one of my binge-viewing comfort franchises...
HOLMES: ...Forever, which is a very bizarre thing to say now to me. But I completely went off of it, you know, last summer when we were having and hearing a lot of really good conversations that people have had before. It was completely on me not to have acted on them before that. When I went back to it, I - in some ways, I still find it eminently bingeable (ph), and I understand why I used to lose so much time to it. But, boy, are the specifics of it glaring in terms of what is at issue.
And I actually wrote about this in the newsletter a couple of weeks ago, that, you know, you start to notice things even more than before, like - and this is across all the different franchises - threatening to call immigration on people who haven't done anything wrong if they don't cooperate. Threatening people with sexual assault in prison is something that they are very commonly guilty of doing. And also, maybe most shocking to me when I go back and see it now is essentially the threat of extrajudicial execution, which is basically saying to people, well, you say you don't want to cooperate because you're afraid of these dangerous people who will kill you if you cooperate. If you don't cooperate, we're just going to make it look like you did, and then they'll kill you anyway. And that is monstrous and absolutely something that should not happen.
Now, the interesting thing to me, and I think you put your finger on it, is in some ways the dynamics of Stabler and some of the other police in this franchise are shedding light on things that I think do really happen. The problem is the franchise will never come to terms with the fact that it means they should not be police officers or that we should not have this kind of police officer, do you know what I mean? And there's a really good piece that was in Vulture last year from Kathryn Vanarendonk, who wrote about how the issue is going to always be the same as long as the police are the center of the story.
And moving forward to the kind of "Organized Crime"/current "SVU" storyline, "SVU" has also been dealing with kind of the post-George Floyd protest moment by talking a lot about the NYPD, how they handle protest, how they've been doing all these different functions. And there was a guy who was arrested and sued the police department and named Olivia - this is the Mariska Hargitay character - named Olivia. And it's a very kind of diligent examination of all the things that the police did in this situation and do in other situations that they should not do.
But the ideas for how to resolve those things come from Olivia, who sort of slips them to this guy who's suing her. And she's kind of like, what you should do is you should call for more civilian oversight. And he, who is a Black man suing the NYPD, is like, keep talking. And it's like, no, no, no, no, no. He - this man would not need to go to a white woman police officer to slip him ideas for what to ask for. That's bizarre. But it's because - and this is what Kathryn talked about - it's because it's the story of the police officers. It's about the police officers. So what the police officer is doing is always going to be the center of the show.
And in terms of what they did with Stabler, bringing him back, here's what I think is bizarre. They decided to bring him back in, to me, the least interesting way possible. The ways that he was before are really ripe for re-examination. What they decided to do was kind of, first of all, change the entire dynamic of the show so that he never really interacts with defendants other than this one terrifying super-criminal and his associates but also to give him this profound personal tragedy so that now his anger and his grudge-holding and his desire to set fire to everyone he's thinking about arresting is all justified. And it's the least interesting thing in the world to me to be like, what if he was more of a rage ball?
HOLMES: Like, no, that's not interesting. And they've completely - you can tell I'm fired up about this. They've completely, like, punted on exploring what happened with him and Olivia. They're doling it out so slowly to try to make people watch both shows. What is your feeling about bringing him back in that - like I said, that kind of Liam Neeson movie revenge capacity?
HARRIS: What I see is a show trying to have its cake and eat it, too.
HOLMES: Oh, boy, yes.
HARRIS: It is trying to give itself points for even addressing the issue, for having the conversation. And like you said, the fact that they give him this personal tragedy in many ways excuses - 'cause he still keeps doing what he's always been doing. He's still badgering possible suspects. He's butting his nose where he shouldn't be. Also, this is a personal case that he shouldn't be involved in at all.
HOLMES: Of course not.
HARRIS: The difference now is that they now have a new boss who is also telling him this and a new partner, who is a Black woman, who is also telling him this. There are multiple scenes where they have this moment that feels, like, ripped from a Twitter thread. She's talking about how she knows his background. She knows that he's, like, been involved in six shootings, and not all of them might have been justified.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAW AND ORDER: ORGANIZED CRIME")
MELONI: (As Elliot Stabler) I'm getting pretty sick and tired of everybody judging who I was from 12 years ago. I was a damn good cop then. I'm a better cop now. You talk to my people who know. You talk to anybody I've ever worked with.
DANIELLE MONE TRUITT: (As Ayanna Bell) I already did.
MELONI: (As Elliot Stabler) And?
TRUITT: (As Ayanna Bell) And I observed you firsthand threatening witnesses that are essential to my case.
MELONI: (As Elliot Stabler) It won't happen again.
TRUITT: (As Ayanna Bell) Oh, it will happen again. Guys who came up when you did - you guys never think you really need to change your ways.
MELONI: (As Elliot Stabler) Really? You know you're profiling me right now?
TRUITT: (As Ayanna Bell) Detective Stabler, you don't know a damn thing about being profiled.
HARRIS: At this point, I've only seen the first three episodes. As the episodes go on, she eventually, like, starts making excuses for him to other people where she's just like, well, you know, he's a good cop. He knows what he's doing. And I'm like, (laughter) what is happening? I don't understand. Is he a good cop, or is he in over his head?
It wants to be of this moment. And I think that it is of this moment but not in the way it wants to be because these are the conversations we're having. Much of the conversation from police officers right now is around the idea that reform is all we need, one bad apple, blah, blah, blah. And this show is very much feeding into that sort of nature.
And on top of that, it is a weird format for "Law And Order" because it is not the procedural, situational, every episode is a different story. It is just one long storyline with Dylan McDermott as the villain. I don't want to watch this. It seems like a very middle-of-the-road CBS drama.
HARRIS: It's not even entertaining anymore.
HOLMES: Yeah. I kind of had this feeling, like, what if you took everything about "Law And Order," despite the fact that it's always been - you know, problematic's an overused word but that it's always been deeply, deeply flawed - what if you took the things about it that were bingeable and sort of entertaining, and you took all that stuff out? So you don't have the rhythm that keeps people engaged in it, which is the sort of, you know, the red herring solution and then the real solution and then the resolution, which is either justice but imperfect or no justice but we'll keep going. Like, that's what happens in a "Law And Order" episode. It's not that complicated. And they took that all out, so you don't get that. He doesn't solve cases. He doesn't solve crimes. How can it be "Law And Order"? He doesn't solve crimes.
And at the same time, he's doing all these really - you know, as you said, like, now he's even more unethical. He does something in the first, like, episode that's so completely inappropriate. And then he lies about it, and he covers it up. And it's like, well, now he's a monster, but it's OK because they killed his wife, who was a, you know, lovely character who they've had some nice episodes with in the past. They killed the wife so that now he can do whatever he wants, and they can kind of point to that.
I think the people who write and make "SVU" are generally well-meaning and have in the past done some good work around trauma associated with sexual assault in some cases. But they're still cop shows. Fundamentally, they're still cop shows, and there's only so much you can do about it. I think you're exactly right that it's a having your cake and eating it too thing. And ultimately, I agree with our great friend R. Eric Thomas, who said on Twitter that, like, the closest they are to making this show work, this "Organized Crime" show, is when it's the closest to camp, is when, like, you have that Dylan McDermott turtleneck...
HARRIS: Oh, man (laughter).
HOLMES: ...Like, intensity that's just so corny, and it's almost funny. It's almost camp. Like, his delivery of this really chewy. Like, I'll get you, and then Elliot being like, no, I'll get you - like, it's almost Alec Baldwin and Will Arnett growling at each other on "30 Rock."
HOLMES: Like, you almost can get there. But it's ultimately, I think, really unsatisfying, man.
HARRIS: (Laughter) I mean, I love that camp point because the camp is probably my favorite aspect of the new version. And it's weird to go back and re-watch their earlier episodes because I spent so many years watching the original "SVU" unironically, and now I realize that, like, it's actually really, really campy and silly, you know, sometimes for the better and sometimes not for the better, you know? "Law and Order: Organized Crime" - I don't - I didn't need it, and I don't think I'll keep watching.
HOLMES: Me neither. And I think the only other thing that we absolutely, I think, are obligated to cover is that they did do yet another version of the theme song.
HARRIS: Oh, I hate it. It's terrible (laughter).
HOLMES: You know what it sounds like to me? Do you know the Christmas music from Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Mannheim Steamroller - like, some of those, like, electronic orchestral Christmas music situations?
HOLMES: That's what it sounds like to me. We're going to play a little bit of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MIKE POST'S "LAW AND ORDER: ORGANIZED CRIME THEME")
HOLMES: See - Trans-Siberian Orchestra Christmas music "Law And Order." And, no, like - they don't have the dun dun (ph). They don't have the switch from scene to scene with the little cards. They threw out the entire format to have turtlenecks.
HARRIS: Well, one final point I make is that, like, they also - the intro - you know how at the beginning of "SVU" or in every "Law And Order," they're like, in New York City, sexually based crimes, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. In this one, like, they're yet again using, like, really, really vivid language to describe - like, just to make sure that you know just how terrible these defendants are. So it's like...
HOLMES: Yeah. Right.
HARRIS: ...Again, we're on the side of the police because...
HARRIS: ...All of these people are vicious people who deserve to be taken down.
HOLMES: Right. Agreed. Agreed. All right, so, look, "SVU" - Aisha and I have both spent a lot of time with it. We understand, and we want to know what you think of "SVU," of original "Law And Order," of "Criminal Intent" if that's your jam, and, of course, of "Law And Order: Organized Crime," turtleneck edition.
HOLMES: You can find us at Facebook.com/pchh or tweet us at @PCHH. Aisha, thank you so much for being here.
HARRIS: Thank you, Linda.
HOLMES: And thank you for listening. We will see you right back here tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.