Judge Adam Arseneau's worst nightmare is reviewing Season 13 of Law and Order: Traffic Division.
Our reviews of Law And Order: Special Victims Unit: The Fifth Year (published November 3rd, 2004), Law And Order: Special Victims Unit: The Eighth Year (published February 17th, 2009), Law And Order: Special Victims Unit: The Fourth Year (published January 28th, 2008), Law And Order: Special Victims Unit: The Seventh Year (published August 13th, 2008), Law And Order: Special Victims Unit: The Sixth Year (published April 24th, 2008), and Law And Order: Special Victims Unit: The Third Year (published February 21st, 2007) are also available.
The father is dead; long live the child. Still rolling strong on network television, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit has the auspicious honor of being that most rare television peculiarity, a spinoff that has outlived its forbearer.
Facts of the Case
New York City's Special Victims Unit (SVU) is tasked with investigating the most heinous of sexually based criminals—pedophiles, rapists, molesters, and worse. Detectives Stabler (Christopher Meloni, Oz) and Benson (Mariska Hargitay, Lake Placid) pound the streets, while Munch (Richard Belzer, Homicide: Life on the Street) and Tutuola (Ice-T, New Jack City) back them up. Captain Cragen (Dann Florek, Law and Order) works the office, while ADA Alexandra Cabot (Stephanie March) prosecutes the heck out of the offenders. Joining the crew (in the credits, at least) are medical investigator Dr. Melinda Warner (Tamara Tunie) and police psychologist Dr. George Huang (B.D. Wong).
Law and Order: Special Victims Unit: The Eleventh Year contains all twenty-four episodes spread across five discs:
Predictability is not always an asset in a television show, but in the case of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, it works. It's hard to find fault with a formula that has proved so consistently reliable and profitable. Where Law & Order suffered (and eventually self-destructed) after numerous cast shake-ups, SVU feels as reliable as a well-worn pocket watch.
Yet Season Eleven is arguably the most exacerbated season of the venerable show on record. Knocked from its Tuesday timeslot, which it occupied for six years running, SVU bounced to Wednesdays at 9 P.M., then moved to 10 P.M. An angry and flailing NBC threatened to not renew Meloni and Hargitay's contract over salary disputes. The ADA chair was a revolving door; Christine Lahti and Sharon Stone both took stabs at filling Stephanie March's role with mixed results. It can be no coincidence that the show received its lowest ratings in its history in this season.
My going theory for Season Eleven of SVU is that producers, exasperated at the six-in-a-row Emmy nominations for leading actress Mariska Hargitay, decided that it was time to get leading man Chris Meloni into the running. Season Eleven throws every horrible situation it can at Detective Stabler, forcing him to emote within an inch of his life. Wrongful convictions, solitary confinement, troubles with his son—you name it, he gets it right in the kisser—but alas, no Emmy! Sorry, Chris, but you've obviously run afoul of someone in the Academy of Television Arts and Science. If you didn't get it for Season Eleven, odds are you've missed your shot. The fellows from Lost should be able to console you.
Standout episodes are fewer than season than others, but a few are worth mentioning: "Unstable," with a marvelous performance by Meloni as a tortured Stabler wrestling with the guilt of a wrongful conviction, "Solitary," where Meloni re-enacts his Oz days in solitary confinement, and "Witness," more a political statement about the violence in the Congo than a standard SVU episode. "Quickie," "Wannabe," and "Hardwired" are pretty solid as well. The good news is that most of the episodes are solid, with few duds. The silliest episode this year, "Bedtime," is a totally illogical exhibition of bad writing and overacting by guest star Ann-Margret.
Guest stars this time around include Sharon Stone as a reccurring ADA character (one of numerous replacements for perpetually absent ADA Cabot), Eric McCormack, Stephen Rea, Naveen Andrews, Rosie Perez, Kathy Griffin, John Larroquette, Jill Scott, French actress Isabelle Huppert, and the aforementioned Ann-Margret, who won an Emmy for her performance in "Bedtime." I'm not sure I agree with that particular award handout, but my voting ballot never arrived in the mail, for some reason.
As with past seasons, the anamorphic widescreen transfer is strong, featuring deep contrast and color saturation. Black levels are satisfyingly rich, with nary a scratch or mark to be seen. The 5.1 presentation features deep bass, clear dialogue, and great environmental effects. The mix is still primarily center-balanced, but the rear channels spring up during noisy sequences, especially on the streets of NYC. And no extras—they gave up on those a long time ago.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Okay, so Season Eleven is the Stabler Show, I get it. But I'm starting to definitely notice the absence of the supporting cast in Season Eleven. It's great to see Wong and Warner get some screen time, but when they're getting more than Munch and Tutuola, something is definitely messed up. Munch gets one or two lines per episode at this point, and that's it. Tutuola gets a single episode, "Anchor," and he spends the entire time being a dick. It is disheartening to see these characters so underutilized.
Eleven seasons in and SVU still represents some of the most reliable drama on network television. How long the show can retain its crown remains to be seen—never thought I'd see Law & Order get axed in my lifetime—but if NBC had any sense, they'd pay the actors whatever they wanted, for as long as they wanted. With chemistry this good, the show will pay for itself.
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