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Law & Order: Special Victims Unit – Season 13 Premiere

By Cliff Francis · September 22, 2011

The Law & Order franchise is beginning to resemble a particularly grisly crime scene of late. The godfather, original L&O, is stone cold dead, lying on a slab in the cancelation mortuary alongside its crazy son, L&O: CI and upstart, west coast nephew, L&O: LA.

Meanwhile, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is in Intensive Care and no one knows if it’s going to pull through. The vital signs don’t look good. Chris Meloni is gone, leaving the already fragile sibling dangerously de-Stabler-ized and weak.

While new blood, in the shape of Kelli Giddish (Chase) and  Danny Pino (Cold Case), is rapidly pumped in by the Dick Wolf Triage Department, the ultimate survival of the franchise seems to rest, for now, on the broad shoulders of Detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargatay).

I’ve never been a great fan of the Law & Order “ripped (or should that be “ripped off”) from the headlines” format. I find it lazy and derivative writing that can end up looking like an edition of 48 Hours Mystery with slightly more red herrings and better production values.

In fact, I only started watching it a couple of years ago when part of an episode was filmed in my New York apartment.

So, against that bleak prognosis, the DSK scandal must have seemed like a huge shot in the arm for the SVU writing team. Perfectly timed, there really couldn’t have been a better story to lead off the thirteenth season with.

It’s got everything an SVU viewer (or is that svu-wer?) could wish for: sex, class, money, politics, diplomacy, blackmail, maid’s outfits and swanky, made up New York locations.

And the prologue wasted no time in getting us straight into the “heinous, sexually based offence” which always serves as the L&O inciting incident. Although, as this is a “he said, she said” crime, the act itself wasn’t shown. We join the action in the immediate aftermath, meeting the two protagonists: Distasio, the DSK stand-in (changed from French to Italian) and the hysterical maid.

In less time than it takes to boil an egg SVU are on the scene, Benson has interviewed the maid and met the new girl, Rollins. Distasio has been tracked down sitting on a plane where his champagne sipping and stewardess ogling are rudely interrupted by Tutuola (Ice-T) and Munch (Richard Betzer). Case closed. Or is it?

In most SVU cases there is usually no shortage of obvious suspects, so Act One is usually the rush to judgment phase. Suspect is hauled in, gets lawyered up, protests innocence, the evidence looks overwhelming, now it’s just a case of making it stick.

Here, the B Story, which is usually some personal drama, is introduced. In this case, it’s all about the missing Stabler (Christopher Meloni), who is under investigation for a fatal shooting. The problem is, we all know by now he isn’t coming back, so this is handled pretty quickly.

The act ends with Distasio being taken on the “walk of shame” past the waiting press by Benson and Tutuola symbolizing that, in their minds at least, he’s the perp.

Act Two brings the first reversal. This is where the conflict builds and the obstacles mount. Apparently, the maid was hoping to blackmail Distasio and then it turns out she may have even been a prostitute.

Cue infighting. There always seems to be additional tension and conflict between the DA’s office who have to ‘prove’ a case and the SVU team who just ‘know’ he’s guilty which is the central premise of the whole L&O franchise. The logline could simply have been Law v. Order.

Act Three brings us to the moment where all seems lost. Usually in court, surprise witnesses pop up delivering devastating news (here, that the maid was not gang raped and lied on her immigration forms), which seem to fatally undermine the prosecution case. At this point, the stakes get raised,often resulting in a race against time to find the vital witness or evidence that will save the case.

But this week there was none. The case just fizzled out. An unsatisfying split decision: Not Guilty on Rape, Guilty on Unlawful Imprisonment.

I read that the writers had to rework the script several times as the actual case unfolded, and it shows. The ending was a complete cop out, with L&O not prepared to convict after the real DSK had already walked.

That left Act Four to concentrate on the Stabler B story. Whereas the final bombshell disclosure usually provides the final twist to the main case, here it simply delivered the news we’d all read about three months ago – that Stabler wasn’t coming back. Hardly ripped from the headlines, more quietly lifted from the archives.

Benson was allowed a few moments alone to cry before pulling herself together and declaring, “Give me five and I’ll roll.”

All in all, not a very auspicious start. Rollins, the new detective, seems like another “southern belle with balls” type in the same mold as Jo Danville (Sela Ward) in CS: NY while the original cast look tired, hoping their SVU life sentence will be soon be commuted.

For all its psycho-babble and legal shenanigans, L&O: SVU is not particularly challenging or thought provoking. The only ‘high brow’ content is the one that arches distractingly above Mariska Hargatay’s right eye.

As it enters its thirteenth season on life support, the only question is, when will NBC finally pluck up the courage to pull the plug. The jury’s still out on that one.