(Note: This article contains spoilers from the premiere episode of ‘Law & Order: Organized Crime.’)
After premiering in a crossover event with the uber-popular Law & Order: SVU, the newest show in the L&O franchise, Organized Crime, now has to establish its own universe, characters and storylines.
Discussing the reappearance of Detective Elliot Stabler within the New York law enforcement community and the future of the series, actor Chris Meloni, Organized Crime showrunner Ilene Chaiken, and Law & order creator, Dick Wolf, offered some insight during a recent press event.
To most people, Stabler is known as the hot-headed cop who worked for 12 years alongside Detective (now Captain) Olivia Benson in the Special Victims Unit.
Now Stabler has joined a new NYPD unit tasked with bringing down New York City’s most powerful crime syndicate.
However, the city and police department have changed dramatically in the time he’s been away, and he must adapt to a criminal justice system in the midst of its own moment of reckoning.
About stepping back into play Stabler after such an extended absence, Meloni admits that he didn’t spend any of the past decade thinking about SVU. “I don’t tend to look back, so I didn’t. I must admit I have maybe watched 10 minutes, but I’m not much of a TV watcher, so it wasn’t anything personal.”
Meloni says that Stabler’s famous temper, often shown on SVU, was warranted, explaining, “I saw this guy as a guy under pressure, constantly.”
He says that after speaking with real SVU detectives that because of the crimes they witnessed he knew that, “Me, personally, Chris Meloni, would have a very difficult time downloading and processing what these real people do every day, and the things that they see. So, that’s the genesis of his [personality]. It’s not like, ‘oh, he’s a hothead to be a hot,’ I think it’s his reaction to injustice.”
Meloni says this feeling about injustice is also part of ‘Elliot 2.0,’ saying, “Hopefully his evolution towards having a clear understanding [and realizing that] the world is unjust, [leads him to ask], ‘how is it you adapt yourself to realities that keep punching you in the face, literally and figuratively?’”
In addition to his on-the-job pressure, Stabler now has to deal with the death of his wife who died as a result of a car bombing in the pilot episode. Meloni says that for Stabler, it’s a question of “How do you attend to your own injustice? How do you carry that much grief? How do you deal with your family, being literally and figuratively blown up?”
To handle all of this, Meloni says, “Let’s hope that Elliot has found better coping mechanisms.”
As for making the decision to kill off Stabler’s wife Kathy in the pilot, which some viewers might see is a dramatic troupe used too often, Wolf remarks, “I have to say, I’ve been doing this for a long time, and it’s probably the most dramatic teaser I can remember on any show. You can’t please all of the people any of the time. It’s not what we do. The only thing we can do is tell stories that [are] compelling. You know, I thought that was like, ‘Wow, what a real intro.’”
Wolf says that having Meloni back as the lead on a new show is exciting for him, mainly because Organized Crime is embarking on a storytelling style that’s completely different for the L&O franchise.
He explains, “In a 24-episode season, there are going to be three eight episode arcs. The first third of the season is ‘The Godfather,’ the second is ‘American Gangster’ and the last third is ‘Scarface,’ and his villains are gonna be really bad guys.”
Adding that this structure will give Meloni, ‘a constant source of energy, outrage, and a different way of pursuing criminals.’
And, that this allows for, “a very long, but not too long period, to really get inside your protagonist and your antagonist heads,” says Wolf. “We’re shooting for a bigger game. And I think it’s going to be endlessly interesting.”
At this point he praises Chaiken for her work on the series, saying, “[She’s] here because she’s not only an excellent writer, but she has managed to take a very tough character and make him more sympathetic than he’s ever been.” He quickly adds, “Please. You ever think you’d see Stabler cry [like he did in the pilot episode]?”
Chaiken says this is absolutely intentional. “This is a show that will spend time with Stabler, and his family and his emotions. We’ll tell procedural stories as that’s the DNA of the Law & Order franchise, but we will get to know Stabler in a way you’ve never gotten to know him.”
As for crossovers with SVU, and bringing Benson and Stabler back together, Wolf says, we’re going to do it whenever it gives both shows a way to shine.”
He’s aware that some fans will say, “’Jesus this is frustrating. Why don’t you just put them both in the same show again?’ It’s [just] not [as] exciting. To me, this is much more engaging.”
Chaiken adds that the creative team realizes, “It’s two shows, within the same universe and we never forget that. When we tell a story about Stabler in Benson’s world or Benson in Stabler’s world, things happen that affect their characters. So, it’s both challenging and tantalizing, from the point of view of storytelling to make sure that you keep those things alive while [each show has] their own identity.”
One facet of the series that will stay true to the franchise is the ‘ripped from the headlines’ conceit of the narrative. But, Wolf says, “I’ve [said the same thing about this] for 31 years – we take the headline, but not the body copy. We never think consciously, ‘okay, what’s the headline in this show?’”
Clarifying a bit, Chaiken says, “What usually happens is we come up with a story [and] we think maybe it’s ludicrous, but we run with it, and then the next day Chris sends me an article that he found, and the thing that we just made up in the writers’ room, it’s actually happened. So, we’re taking our lead from what’s going on in the world and imagining where it might be going and usually it pans out.”
In that vein of being timely, Wolf says that the show will address issues with police procedures that have been called into question lately. “The people inside the company – showrunners, the producers – we spend a lot of time talking about police behavior. I would put it to you that probably more time than any other non-law enforcement people in the country, because it’s what we do every day. And I made a statement when everything erupted in the spring [of 2020] when somebody said [to me about out shows], ‘well, what are you doing to change,’ and I said, ‘we’re doing what we always do, which is listen very carefully [and] read virtually everything written about this from both sides of the spectrum from the far left to the far right.’ And what I said still holds.”
The series got off to a steady start, ratings wise, which was pleasantly surprising to Meloni. “Yeah, I was not prepared, It’s overwhelming and it’s wonderful and it’s very appreciated.”
He says that he and his co-star, and friend, Mariska Hargitay have talked about the fan reaction. “The conversation went something basically like this, ‘Wow. Congratulations.’”
Now in the thick of once again portraying the detective he’s spend so much time with, Meloni sums up his thoughts with, “I feel less pressure than I did when Dick first tasked me with being Elliot Stabler, so I’m a little freer to appreciate everything. It’s a nice journey.”
‘Law & Order: Organized Crime” airs Thursdays at 10/9c on NBC.