Earlier this season, one of the most venerable franchises on TV was forced to confront itself.
Returning for its 22nd season, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” stepped tentatively into a new world. The death of George Floyd had catalyzed a movement against the sorts of people Dick Wolf’s series had positioned as heroes, or at least people with a right to be involved in just about every social problem. Years after emerging as the standard-bearing cop show on TV — outlasting even the mothership “Law & Order” series — “SVU” was up against a powerful social movement. And in its season premiere last November, the show tried to split the difference, depicting the show’s police squad newly examining their biases all in light of a single twisty case.
The show, and others in the “Law & Order” universe, have long prided themselves on “ripping from the headlines,” or taking storylines directly from the news. But the “SVU” take on police brutality began with a take-off on the real-world incident in which a Black birdwatcher minding his own business in Central Park was the subject of a white woman’s call to the cops, and continued with elements of citizen outrage at cell-phone footage that strongly recalled elements of the aftermath of Floyd’s death. These were not stories from the headlines in which cops played a laudable role, and they forced the show to exist uncomfortably in a challenging moment. The show ended with Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) vowing that she had “a lot of work to do;” some viewers might wonder whether that work, for our society, might be made more difficult with shows like this on the air.
Intriguingly, the arrival of a new “Law & Order” franchise this week managed to sidestep all of this entirely. The entertainment-news headline here is the return of Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), the departed former partner of Benson who was known, earlier in “SVU’s” run, as a cop who brought a level of passion to his work that merged the cinematic and the borderline-unprofessional. In the new series “Law & Order: Organized Crime,” Stabler leads a task force to defeat the mob, a storyline that feels fantastically far from street-level realities of most Americans and that — conveniently enough — allows him to play the hero.
It is worth noting that both the “SVU” episode that reintroduced Stabler and the premiere of “Organized Crime” that followed immediately after were juicily entertaining — red meat of a sort the “Law & Order” franchise has historically been and can less confidently be nowadays. The “SVU” episode existed outside that show’s bailiwick (portraying cases of sexual assault), depicting the tentative reconnection of Stabler and Benson after the former’s wife is fatally injured by a car bomb intended for him. (In a regrettable sequence, Stabler is physically restrained from beating a perp meant as a sketch of an insurrectionist who blames Antifa for his crimes.) In the “Organized Crime” premiere, Stabler — who, we are told, had been leading the New York Police Department’s operations in Rome — began the process of claiming justice for his wife on the streets of New York.
This seems a canny pivot for a franchise with a lot of verve left but perhaps an understandable desire to live outside the dramas of the present moment — at least for an hour a week. While organized crime is obviously a real thing, it is known to many from other television shows and films rather than from 2020s-era news coverage. With its new series, “Law & Order” gave itself permission to rip not from the headlines but from a sort of shared imaginative realm. And when reality intruded, it seemed to come through in attempted complications that flattered the audience’s sensibilities. The don of the crime family, played by no less a venerable figure than Chazz Palminteri, is an outright racist who decries “mentally deficient BLM lowlifes and thugs” and mocks his Black grandchildren. (He also, in a strangely specific detail that reminds one of the cosmopolitan reach the “L&O” writers can exhibit when they like, mistakes his daughter-in-law for the subject of a Mickalene Thomas painting.) His ambitious son, played by Dylan McDermott, has a much more inclusive mindset — as well as an eagerness to break free of the rigorous rules that governed old-school Mafia life and claim power for himself.
The show seems to make points incidentally and almost by accident: the Black characters in Palminteri’s and McDermott’s characters’ lives exist on the periphery, and the fact that the liberal-minded one of the father-son pair is the more devilishly cruel in his interpersonal relationships passes quickly, at least in the show’s pilot. The mere inclusion of these names and details feels like triangulation, a clever way to be about this moment without truly being about much more than a compelling and frisky drama this franchise has done for decades.
What intrigues most about “Law & Order: Organized Crime” is its attempt to reclaim a past, rather than make points about our present. The Benson-Stabler chemistry — a part of the franchise’s legacy but by now long in the rear view — is put to use here, and so is a sort of timeless plot that could exist in any universe where criminals are rapaciously greedy and in need of correction. After spending time apologizing for itself, the “Law & Order” franchise is now back to doing what it had always done. Stabler, with a task force on the story’s sidelines, is in charge, and we feel assured that he will deliver justice. It feels like old times: The work this character has to do is on some perps, not on himself.