|The "Law & Order" franchise is looking a little dingy these days - not unlike those few remaining stand-alone Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants with no connection to a Taco Bell.|
In fact, the original "Law & Order" and its "Criminal Intent" spinoff are still waiting for word from NBC about whether they'll be back in the fall. Speculation is NBC is trying to exact production cuts from producer-creator Dick Wolf, which of course would mean more cast changes.
The one certainty is that "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" will be back, as it's already been renewed. Yet allow me to say there's no justice in that. The original "L&O" is still the original, and "CI" at least has Vincent D'Onofrio to recommend it. "SVU" is the least interesting of the three "L&O" series, but inexplicably it's also the most popular. Or maybe its simplicity is why it's popular, that and photogenic co-stars Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni as New York City detectives Benson and Stabler.
Benson dominated last week as she searched for her half-brother, so Stabler steps to center stage this week in a new episode airing at 9 p.m. today on WMAQ Channel 5. That's a basic illustration of just how mechanical and formulaic this show has gotten.
"Annihilated" finds Stabler covering a murder-suicide case involving a family, which rings bells given the turbulent state of his own fragmenting family life. There's not much to the mystery angle; in fact, the original murder that opens the show is all but forgotten by the end.
'A bride-to-be is found with her neck snapped in Manhattan, so Benson and Stabler go searching
for her top-secret, CIA-agent fiance.
"This is like chasing shadows," Benson says.
Co-star Richard Belzer, whose detective Munch was salvaged from the scattered remains of "Homicide: Life on the Street" only to be kept on the sidelines as something of a pet on "SVU," gets off a much better line when he says, "Hey, I got something spooky on your spook."
It turns out, of course, that there is no CIA agent. (Anyone who's ever watched a TV police procedural can see this coming a mile off - even if the cops can't.) Instead, there's just a milquetoast of a family man, Dylan Walsh's Malcolm Royce, who's evidently been lying to both his wife and his lover.
All evidence points to Malcolm, except that he had his kids out for pizza that night. All right, so who drove the family car into Manhattan the night of the murder? Ah, the wife had the car - for her book group.
That drags her into it so, no matter who killed the bride, pretty soon she's on to everything, and the next thing you know Benson and Stabler are being summoned back to the Royce home, where the wife has apparently shot everyone and killed herself. Only Malcolm survives, as the shot glanced off his forehead.
Look, anyone with common sense can see that a jealous wife who plugs her kids in the skull is sure as shooting going to make sure her philandering husband catches it square between the eyes. But for some reason Benson and Stabler buy the case as it appears on the surface. Stabler, in fact, is so distraught he drops in to see his own kids, only to have his estranged wife lean forward with her nightgown unbuttoned at the breast and ask him to stay the night. This earns him a lecture from his teenage daughter in the morning.
"We're your family, not some booty call," she says. "Come home or don't. There's nothing in between."
Yeah, yeah, whatever. In any case, it takes the forensics guys to figure out the family shooting didn't exactly go as it seemed, but even then it's not over. Stabler could easily let Royce commit suicide when he confronts him on the hospital rooftop (how cliched is that?), but oh no, he has to drag him back to the station house for an extended interrogation scene.
That's the second time this show reminds a viewer it's no "Homicide," because Stabler bludgeoning his suspect into a confession is nothing like Pembleton in the box when it comes to delicacy and drama.
So I say just wipe out all the "Law & Order" series and start again. And no I don't mean with spinoffs like "Heroes: The Antiheroes" or "My Name Is Earl: Joy to the World." Although I have to admit, any concept that gets away from formulaic police procedurals would be an improvement.