Teleplay by Ilene Chaiken
Story by Dick Wolf & Ilene Chaiken and Matt Olmstead
Directed by Fred Gerber
Original Air Date: April 1st 2021 (U.S), July 30th 2021 (U.K)
There’s something fascinating in witnessing the launch of a new branch of the Law & Order franchise in 2021. Given the criticism that crime procedurals have come in for with their leanings towards what could be best described as ‘copaganda’ in light of the justified criticism directed towards American law enforcement, and how quaint and old fashioned crime procedurals appear to be in an era of serialised television shows that appear to want to function more as eight-to-ten hour movies than try to resolve everything in the space of forty-five minutes, it’s interesting to note that Law & Order creator Dick Wolf has not only managed to launch a new branch of his ever popular franchise, but has also in the last few years also produced the never ending stream of Chicago series, one of which is centred directly on the Chicago P.D.
Given how famous the procedural nature is of Law & Order and its many spin-offs (with the notable exception of Law & Order True Crime which attempted an American Crime Story-style anthology approach that lasted for one season), there is something refreshing in the franchise’s latest production taking the serialised route. There will, of course, be an expectant audience for this given that it is part of one of American television’s most popular and iconic franchises, but also because of the return of one of its most popular characters and actors.
Special Victims Unit, the first of L&O’s many spin-offs that is still airing today and has now outlasted the series that launched the whole endeavour, became incredibly popular thanks to its central partnership between Mariska Hargitay’’s Benson and Christopher Meloni’s Stabler. The loss of Meloni from the series could have potentially hurt it, but it has instead thrived and made Hargitay one of American television’s most iconic names, but there has perhaps always been a wish fulfilment on the part of fans and viewers who would be curious to know what would happen if Stabler returned.
Well, now he has, spinning off into his own series that puts the focus on an organized crime task force and Stabler’s attempt at bringing down a crime family and infrastructure that is responsible for the death of his wife.
Yep, it’s at this point that we say hello to that age-old ‘woman in refrigerator’ trope. Stabler’s wife has died (in an episode of SVU that sets up the events of this series that gets a handy recap both at the episode’s beginning and through so much exposition here) and now he wants vengeance. Or justice. Or both.
Cue scenes of Stabler being told he’s too close to this case, having to prove he can function while grieving, much running around pointing guns alongside various SWAT teams busting down doors, while the character manages to work his way into a case that he really ought not to be investigating but, let’s be honest, that’s not how American cop shows function.
Instead of resolving everything in the space of forty five minutes, the series puts itself into the mould of an ongoing serial, and it does come as a weirdly fun surprise at the end of this first episode to see that things won’t be resolved easily in the manner that so many L&O episodes opt for. We also only get the famous ‘dun dun’ sound effect after the customary narration from Steven Zirnkilton declaring that ‘these are their stories’.
It manages to be entertaining and something new for the franchise, but also being the type of thing we’ve seen a million times before and probably done better if we’re being honest. Yes, it’s dramatic and well made and places itself firmly in the real world by having COVID be mentioned a lot and having characters wearing masks and practicing social distancing, not to mention raising the issue of racism.
It’ll be interesting to see going forward with the next batch of episodes during the season if the references it makes to Black Lives Matter and the racism it explores through one of its antagonists (Chazz Palmenteri) will extend to the NYPD itself, especially given that L&O as a franchise has never been afraid of its ‘ripped from the headlines’ approach to storytelling.
Credit is due to launching a new branch of his never ending television tree by having an entry within it fashion itself into something that plays in a television world that seems to crave more connective tissue between episodes. It does manage to get exciting that little bit more and more towards the end credits that you will feel inclined to come back for the next episode at the very least.
If you’ve watched a lot of Special Victims Unit, there is a nicely dramatic and nostalgic charge at seeing Hargitay and Meloni on screen together again and their scenes do carry the weight of two people not having seen each other in a long time and having to deal with the emotional ramifications of being in each other’s lives again. While it does succeed in paving the way for a serialised story that makes it a Law and Order for the era of peak-TV, it lacks the complexities (at least at this stage) that one might expect in an era of such productions as the BBC’s Line of Duty (arguably the best police drama of the peak-TV era precisely because it manages to never fall into the realm of being a ‘copaganda’ piece).
There is some promise here, and certainly I’ll be back for the second episode, but one is also left hoping that it will try to get to grips with not only trying to succeed structurally in the age of television that it’s being produced in, but also in trying to grapple with what it means to be a Law and Order spin-off in an era when cop shows might no longer have the allure that they once did.