After many years out of the franchise and a long promotional run-up to his return, Elliot Stabler is now back in the Law & Order universe as the lead character in the newest spinoff series, Law & Order: Organized Crime. He showed up first in an exciting crossover episode of his old franchise home SVU and was then ported over to his own show in his own time slot, once again running around New York City in pursuit of baddies.
Stabler’s initial return scenes on SVU were fan-servicey and indulgent — lots of opportunities to stare deeply into his old partner Olivia Benson’s eyes and attempt to atone for the mistakes of his past. But by the time Stabler strolls out of the SVU domain and over into his own series, that character in particular and Organized Crime more broadly starts looking like a frustrating measure of just how far the world has moved on from the values and tropes that defined the character years ago. Worse, Organized Crime seems to misjudge the appeal of Law & Order altogether, and it does so in a way that only exacerbates the gap between now and the Stabler of old.
Bringing back Elliot Stabler in 2021 was always going to be a mess. Sure, when seen through nostalgia glasses, Stabler is your Law & Order problematic zaddy or whatever. When he’s forced to exist in a contemporary context, though, it’s immediately obvious that all the things he was best known for a decade ago are now enormous flaws. He’s violent and impulsive, he cannot follow rules, and deep in his heart he truly believes that all these things make him a good cop.
There are a few fascinating moments in the SVU episode launching Stabler’s return, short scenes that do register how much Stabler’s whole deal is now a massive issue. When his wife Kathy is the victim of a bombing (justice for Kathy Stabler; no character ever deserves to spend this much time in a neck brace!), Stabler goes berserk. He demands to be in the interview room with a suspect even though he shouldn’t be anywhere near there, and Benson inevitably has to stop him from violently lunging at the interviewee. Benson and the DA talk about it. Stabler is a liability, he says. Stabler has a terrible misconduct record, and his current behavior doesn’t indicate he’s changed his ways. And yet Benson, who previous episodes suggest should know better by now, defends him! Once again, he somehow manages to be “a good cop” in spite of all evidence to the contrary.
The most intriguing element of the franchise’s big swing is what happens when Elliot Stabler’s preestablished character combines with the format of the new series, Organized Crime. We have only seen the first episode, which aired Thursday night, and there are no screeners available to help clarify what the whole show will be like going forward. At least as the first episode goes, though, Organized Crime looks like a significant departure from the rhythm of a typical Law & Order series. Kathy Stabler’s death (JUSTICE FOR KATHY STABLER) pushes Stabler into a complex world of mob crime, forcing the show out of its familiar episodic storytelling model and into a more serialized slow-burn crime story. SVU has dabbled in this territory before on big occasions, but its core has always been episode-length stories, and it’s possible Organized Crime will eventually revert to the L&O narrative mean. I doubt it, though — from the way its pilot is set up, Dylan McDermott is being built as a long-running Big Bad character, and Elliot Stabler seems primed to work on avenging his wife’s death for quite a while. (JUSTICE! FOR! KATHY!)
I can imagine a circumstance where a slowly developing serialized story could help push against the mess of Stabler’s character history. Episodic storytelling is often a way out for character flaws or inconsistent character development; franchises can get away with not dealing with the ramifications of someone’s bad actions when the plot starts all over again each week. But in a fictional world where Elliot has to work with the same people on the same case for an extended period of time, maybe his grandiose, uncontrollably violent pigeons might finally come home to roost. From the overall tone of the first episode, though, Organized Crime does not seem poised to embrace a reformed Elliot Stabler. In a story world driven by a Big Bad, it seems just as probable that Stabler’s terrible behavior looks increasingly justified, the necessary steps someone has to take in order to bring down the evildoer. There’s a scene near the end of the episode when Olivia Benson returns, hoping to hash things out with Stabler about the past rupture in their partnership. Stabler can’t talk to her; he’s already too far gone inside the tangled web of this new all-consuming case. I honestly can’t tell if Organized Crime wants that scene to be an indictment or an excuse.
More generally, I’m just not sure that Organized Crime is what audiences want from the Law & Order universe. Setting aside the dubious choice of creating even more cop shows right now, the appeal of the franchise’s most enduring properties has always been their role as episodic-TV comfort food. It is copaganda of a very specific flavor: There are cops, there are problems, and then those problems get fixed. If Organized Crime keeps the “cops” and “there are problems” parts of the equation, but chucks out the part where those problems are fixed in a reliable clockwork rhythm, I’m not sure the lingering fondness for Elliot Stabler will be enough to win Organized Crime a dedicated place in viewers’ hearts. (Plus, there’s no DUN DUN. Is it even Law & Order without the DUN DUN?!)
There are bright spots. Dylan McDermott and Tamara Taylor could be a very interesting set of TV antagonists. The pilot of Organized Crime doesn’t make much space to introduce the team of crime-solving regulars, so there’s some opportunity for those players to help balance out Stabler’s Stabler-ness. Still, it’s not an auspicious beginning, especially if the show continues on in the same mode. The one major consolation is that at least Elliot Stabler, by chasing down the criminals responsible for his wife’s death, will be keyed into the thing I most care about in this franchise now: Justice for Kathy Stabler! She deserved a better ending than this!