We talk about TV all the time, but we hardly talk about all the TV. This week, we’re looking at the shows, people, and networks that we know people love — that we love — but typically fall outside of the critical hivemind. This is TV Airing in Plain Sight.
Law and Order: Special Victims Unit traffics in atrocity, week after week; plotlines include pedophilic cults, fetus stealing, and homicidal psychics. It has one episode about a serial rapist who tracks his victims’ ovulation cycles so he can impregnate them. But the most especially heinous offense on the show is the case of Detective Elliot Stabler ghosting his work partner and best friend, Detective Olivia Benson. They worked side by side for more than 12 intimate years on an elite squad of detectives, solving sexually based crimes in Manhattan while leaving their sexual tension delightfully unresolved — until Stabler pulled a ruthless Charlize Theron.
SVU is returning for its 18th season tonight. Benson is now a lieutenant, and she continues to hunt New York City’s most abominable perverts, with Fin (Ice-T) as her no. 2. It’s still a “ripped-from-the-headlines” show; the first episode of the new season is about mass murder, and the second one was inspired by Making a Murderer. Benson will have plenty to do. Yet a mystery she has never solved is why Stabler vanished from her life after leaving without saying goodbye at the end of the 12th season.
I get it. Sometimes actors want to leave popular beloved television shows, even when they get to banter with the lovely Mariska Hargitay for a paycheck. It’s entertainment for us, but a grind for them. Twelve years is a long time to do one thing, especially when that one thing is starring on pulpy trauma porn, no matter how wildly entertaining it is. Also, here is a graph I made comparing Christopher Meloni’s acting skill to the quality of Law and Order: SVU:
As you can see, Meloni stayed around the same at acting (solid) while SVU got trashier as a television show. (SVU’s first season was its best.) I can’t imagine how many times he thought to himself as the years passed, “I was on friggin’ OZ!”
Still, Meloni is now partially responsible for the most gaping plot hole in SVU history. His abrupt departure came after the 12th-season finale had already wrapped, which resulted in a completely bungled exit. The sudden retirement of the long-running show’s male lead didn’t get its own episode; the writers had to shoehorn an explanation into the 13th-season premiere about why Stabler vanished, settling on a vague “he retired” from Captain Cragen and a brief shot of Benson crying. This solution, to mostly pretend that Stabler never existed, didn’t only fuck up SVU’s future, it fucked up its past. Stabler’s main personality traits were uncontrollable rage and loyalty. Everything he did, from the pilot to his last episode, suggested he would rather die than betray Benson. At one point they bickered over who would give the other a kidney first. Having Stabler treat Benson like a mediocre Tinder date warped everything we knew about his character.
The Benson-Stabler dynamic was the show’s emotional core. Separately, they were two objectively unstable police officers: Stabler choked not one but two suspects in the interrogation room; Benson cared too much. They were bad at their jobs, but Stabler and Benson kept SVU from sinking into nothing more than a dead-girl-of-the-week soap.
There are acceptable ways to sunset main characters when actors want out. Good character exits can wrap up story arcs and improve shows, even when the characters were beloved. When George Clooney bounced on ER, for instance: That was fine. Doug Ross was better off in Seattle, and his exit made room for the FAR hotter Dr. Luka Kovac. The ER exit involves a rotating ensemble cast, similar to how most nonterrible lead actor exits involve large, constantly changing casts.
(Then there’s The Good Wife way to do an abrupt character exit, which I will not speak of here because, while it was not bad television, it was very personally emotionally damaging and I would like an apology from Josh Charles.)
Post-Stabler, SVU retooled into this kind of ensemble, and it’s still that uncomfortable mix of cheaply lurid and absorbing. But I cannot get through an episode without wondering why Benson isn’t more upset that her longtime companion never even calls her, even when she adopted a child and you’d think he would be around for that.
SVU has made a habit in recent seasons of putting Benson and her child in mortal danger. Last season, Benson was taken hostage. She was also taken hostage in Season 14, and placed on mandatory leave after beating her kidnapper with a tire iron. Considering Stabler didn’t die, it’s super fucking weird that he never comes around when his close friend is fighting for her life. And even in less high-stakes situations: There was an entire plotline about Benson struggling to find child care to cover her long hours. Stabler had lots of experience raising children, is supposedly retired, and has a freaking stay-at-home wife. Can’t Stabler babysit? A casual mention every once in a while, so that it doesn’t seem like the Stabler-Benson relationship, which served as the show’s bedrock for 12 seasons, wasn’t a total sham — is that so hard?
“None of the people in the room thought for a second, ‘How will the fans experience this?’” Warren Leight, who took over as showrunner after Meloni left, told The Hollywood Reporter. “It was a negotiation handled without much empathy on any of the participants’ parts, and I think they all sort of know that now. And there wasn’t much empathy for the fans either. I think everyone probably learned, but you can’t roll the clock back.” You can’t roll the clock back in real life, but SVU is a television show! They can make it up! Leight said that he has discussed bringing Meloni back for a series finale, which proves Leight is sane, as that is the only correct thing to do. (SVU improved dramatically under Leight and enjoyed an improbable quality upswing in its teen years. Unfortunately, he left last year and it’s on to another new showrunner.)
My proposal: Make up something better that involves Stabler. Perhaps he can show up with a series-finale-of-Dexter look and explain that he was actually fired, and didn’t retire, and he was so despondent that he left his wife and children and went and lived in a Shame Cabin and thought about all of his rage beatings. And he found tranquility in the Shame Cabin, and during his time of quiet reflection he learned that he was quietly in love with Benson and needed to return to her once healed. Benson is standoffish at first, but then they kiss, a lot. Just a thought!