Stuck in one of television’s worst timeslots — Mondays, opposite kickoff of the football game — this “Law & Order” spinoff wastes no time getting to a juicy crime and expertly tucking the necessary character exposition into a handful of scenes that propel the drama. While it doesn’t tarry in introducing characters the way so many ensemble dramas do, it doesn’t maximize the presence of two familiar faces — “L&O” vet Dann Florek and “Homicide’s” Richard Belzer. But Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay immediately display a solid chemistry that could carry this look at the seedy side of sex drives.
Detectives Elliot Stabler (Meloni) and Olivia Benson (Hargitay) are the primaries in the case of a cab driver hacked to death behind the wheel. SVU, which handles sexually based offenses, is dragged in because the perpetrator has also sliced off his genitals, leading them on an obvious investigation that becomes the standard-issue wild goose chase.
Detective squad is considered “elite,” yet it takes Capt. Cragen (Florek) to figure out that the cabbie’s license has been forged and the detectives are looking for the wrong man. What appears to be a dead end becomes a twist that involves rape, a Serbian national and ethnic cleansing. First episode lacks the energy and grit of the first season of “Law & Order,” but Anthony Jannelli’s camera work reveals the guilty, and director Jean De Segonzac and editor Doug Ibold keep the action taught even when it’s apparent exactly where things are headed.
One imagines that the show will continue in this vein of law and minimal order. “L&O’s” Angie Harmon makes a brief guest appearance as assistant D.A. Abbie Carmichael accepting a plea bargain.
With a known commodity in the wise-cracking and paranoid John Munch (Belzer), premiere seems like it could have better worked him into the fabric of the story. On the other hand, script takes a cue from “Homicide” by focusing on a specific team and the dynamics of their relationship — Stabler’s the calm one, Benson’s the hothead ready to bend procedural rules. Indeed the premiere has the audience wondering why officers around Benson are concerned about her ability to handle the job. A dinner chat with mom reveals Olivia was the child of a rape.
Hargitay, the youngest daughter of Jayne Mansfield, plays her volatile detective with a sheen of stoicism and layers of anger; Meloni’s Stabler is the level-headed member of the bunch. While Belzer is left to comic devices — Munch is one of the most memorable cop characters in the ’90s — Dean Winters is given even less to do as Brian Cassidy, and what he comes up with is an irksome single note. Florek, who commanded a Staten Island precinct in last year’s “Law & Order” telefilm, is a leader by example, the one who has the smarts — smarts that don’t appear evenly distributed in the premiere.
Two days after “SUV” airs, “Law & Order” debuts with Jesse L. Martin as detective Edward Green. The replacement for Benjamin Bratt, he is the antithesis of the collected Ray Curtis. His perf in episode one packs a real wallop. Show also signals a prominent return of the hand-held camera and more of the cinematic feel that’s defining much of the fall season’s tone in dramas.