Ten years ago the Law & Order franchise was the king of the cop show castle with the mother ship at the peak of its ratings dominance, Law & Order: SVU well into a successful third season and the new series Law & Order: Criminal Intent finishing up a successful freshman year. All seemed well in the world that Dick Wolf had birthed, but everything was starting to change.
In the following ten years, the unstoppable force that was the mother ship series was cancelled after a hefty twenty-year run (had it gone on for one more season it would of surpassed Gunsmoke as the longest running scripted drama on television), Criminal Intent dropped in ratings and was forced to shift to the USA Network, new spin-off series Trial By Jury and Conviction were ratings bombs and the monstrosity of this past year known as Law & Order: LA was, well, a monstrosity. The only glimmer of hope the franchise had left lied in the hands of Benson, Stabler, Fin and the rest of the Special Victims Unit.
The question is whether that’s a hope they should hold on to.
SVU has become the unstoppable force that the original series once was. No matter where it airs or how gruesome the stories get, people still tune in to watch the adventures of Manhattan’s sex crime unit. And while the reasons for that could be many, perhaps the biggest is because SVU has remained pretty much the same show since its first season.
Cragen is still Captain, Benson and Stabler are still partners, Munch (though now scaled back to occasional appearances) is still running around, Fin has yet to go anywhere. In fact the only position on the show that acts as a rotating door is the ADA.
But that’s all about to be dropped on its head come September with the news that Christopher Meloni will be leaving the series after contract negotiations fell through. On top of that, it was also announced that Mariska Hargitay’s screen time would be drastically reduced in order to make room for a new female lead. The lemon wedge on top? Ice-T has yet to sign a new contract for next season. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the change in show runner from Neal Baer (who has served the position since season one) to former Lights Out show runner Warren Leight (who served as a writer on Criminal Intent for a while).
So with this massive change coming like a freight train through the sex crimes unit, and with all the other links in the franchise chain cancelled or ending (this season is the last for Criminal Intent), is it time for Dick Wolf to just call it a day? Maybe so.
Here’s the truth, as we’ve talked about before, the landscape of the cop drama is a very different place from when the franchise was at its peak in 2002. The audience has shown in their support of shows such as Criminal Minds, NCIS, Flashpoint, Dexter, In Plain Sight and BONES, that they demand more. More than just characters that act as surrogates to give a cold, hard look at the criminal justice system. They want characters with issues and emotions. Which is what SVU was. And what many are afraid the show will lose with the new changes.
But more importantly, the franchise just doesn’t have the support it once did. Who among us can honestly say picking up Law & Order: LA and cancelling Law & Order was the right move? Ratings wise, NBC would of probably been better off the other way around.
The fact is simple, it’s time for Dick Wolf to turn in the badge that put him on the map and try something new. While this “reboot” of SVU is not the first time a TV network/executive has tried to fix a machine that wasn’t broken, and while it certainly won’t be the last, maybe it’s time to finally read the semen-stained writing on the wall. Law & Order as a whole served a job that was integral to creating the TV landscape we have today, there is not a single person that would doubt that (and if they do, they are plain wrong), but even Gunsmoke hung it up eventually.
I, like many, would be more than upset to see the franchise go. However, it has a chance to go out on a high note as opposed to sticking around for another five years and becoming a mole on the face of the prime time schedule. We love you Law & Order, and we just want to give you a proper burial.
Not eternity in a half-assed cardboard casket.
To listen to the latest episode of Merrill’s TV Podcast, The Idiot Boxers with Kevin Carr, head over to Fat Guys at the Movies.