Christopher Meloni talks to TV Drama about bringing his beloved Law & Order: SVU character Elliot Stabler back in Law & Order: Organized Crime.
For 12 seasons, Christopher Meloni played seasoned detective Elliot Stabler alongside partner Olivia Benson (portrayed by Mariska Hargitay) in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU). The pair pursued suspects in sexually based offenses, which, in the famous words of the show’s opening, the criminal justice system considers especially heinous. As Meloni tells TV Drama, Dick Wolf, the creator of the Law & Order franchise, contacted him with the idea of a new show, more serialized than SVU, that would bring Stabler back. Law & Order: Organized Crime, now in its third season, sees a highly agile and fit Stabler tracking down members of the underworld, corrupt cops and going undercover. In signature Wolf style, crossover episodes with SVU feature Stabler and Benson working together again—reigniting hopes among avid fans that the two may finally become romantically involved.
TV DRAMA: How did Organized Crime come about, and how did you become involved?
MELONI: I got a call out of the blue stating that Dick Wolf had an idea that he wanted to bounce off me—a new show, a new way of telling the stories; it being serialized as opposed to episodic. In essence, the return of Elliot Stabler in a different unit.
TV DRAMA: How’s it been reprising the role of Elliot Stabler?
MELONI: It’s been great! It’s been fulfilling. Every day you get to work, solve problems or help refine things. I appreciate and enjoy the different dynamics of telling the story over time as opposed to one singular piece of entertainment. I’ve done that before. This is something new in this role, and I’m enjoying it.
TV DRAMA: How is Stabler today different from the Stabler that left SVU? Where are his head and his heart?
MELONI: Having lost his wife, he’s still grappling and dealing with that. I think there is a lot of real estate to explore vis-à-vis losing your spouse. He has to deal with his feelings toward his ex-partner Benson. He has to deal with finding his place in this new world order of the NYPD and the new environment. He’s had experiences overseas, and that has had an effect. One of the first things is how he dressed. He’s a much sharper dresser because he’s been influenced by the styles he saw overseas!
TV DRAMA: Stabler had been living in Italy.
MELONI: Yes, that’s right.
TV DRAMA: And there is a physicality to Organized Crime that is greater than it was on SVU.
MELONI: I think that is what the more serialized storytelling allows—you don’t have to introduce and then resolve in 44 minutes. It gives you more time for more dynamic stunt pieces, more drama and physicality, as well as hopefully the storytelling and the intricacies of what the crime is, the strategy of what you are doing to bring the bad guys down. Yes, I’ve been doing a lot of stunts!
TV DRAMA: Do you enjoy that? Is there choreography involved?
MELONI: Oh yes, basically what we do is dance steps. Your distancing has to be correct; your timing has to be correct—how you move with one person or multiple people if you are being attacked by multiple people. It’s all tight choreography with professionals, the stunt people and yourself. I happen to like that. I find it a beautiful art and dance. So far, so good.
TV DRAMA: Besides being first on the call sheet, what extra responsibilities do you have as one of the executive producers on the show?
MELONI: We all have different talents or gifts. I think one of mine is being able to see a scene and help give it clarity or possibly a little more dynamism. That’s really my role. I say the writers break the rocks, and I just sit there and polish them! I try to do it respectfully and with their blessing. I want them to engage, but I do have a point of view. Sometimes, I don’t understand the scene. Or I suggest, again, very respectfully, how I think the scene may serve the story better in the long run. That’s where I put my two cents in. Every once in a while, I’ll make a suggestion to the director. I’m there to be another set of eyes—a set of eyes that has done this role for a long time.
TV DRAMA: Well, the writers don’t act.
MELONI: Yes, it’s just a different angle. That’s why I’m saying another set of eyes. Very often, things are written, and I’ve written stuff, where, in my head and on the page, it was great. Then you hear it read, and you think, oh, something is missing. There’s a punch missing or something’s off about it. It is a collaborative endeavor, and I’m part of that collaboration.
TV DRAMA: The television landscape has become very competitive. We viewers have almost too much to choose from. Do shows need to be different today?
MELONI: For as many stories as there are out there, there are as many viewers to pick and choose what kind of story they like being told. I know what you’re saying, and I agree; I’m all over the landscape. Sometimes I like a great story, but they are telling it in their own unique fashion. That’s great and very entertaining. Or you want something totally outside what you are used to. Some people want to come home, sit in front of the TV and see a good story being told. They don’t want something too wacky or too much oh, what’s happening? They don’t want to be lost too much.
TV DRAMA: And they like coming back to characters they love. I think the whole Law & Order franchise offers that.
MELONI: Yes. I think that’s the role this show plays, and my character supplies. Our marching orders were to tell stories in a little more cinematic fashion. And again, because we have the luxury of having eight episodes to tell a story, we have a little breathing room in how we unspool the story, but it still has to have dynamism and something provocative. Then, hopefully, you are following a character you enjoy, trust, or have feelings about because he’s been in your den for 20 years.
TV DRAMA: As an extension of that, to what do you attribute the worldwide popularity of Dick Wolf’s Law & Order franchise?
MELONI: I don’t know. I find it fascinating, and I leave it at that. Dick Wolf has really hit on some kind of formula.
TV DRAMA: Stabler displays strength and vulnerability. In the last episode of season two, he is awarded a Combat Cross medal, given for acts of extraordinary heroism. That was difficult for him to accept. Can you explain why? Will we see that side of him again?
MELONI: That was about a man coming to terms with the multifaceted aspects of his relationship with his father. We all come to terms with the dynamic with our parents. I think that’s what that was all about and the power behind that whole storytelling. We haven’t picked up that line in season three, but we can always return to it.
TV DRAMA: Speak for a moment about your fellow cast members, from Ellen Burstyn, who plays your mom Bernadette, to everyone else. They’re great.
MELONI: Yes, and they’re great to work with. Ellen, I don’t have the words. Some cast members are new. Working with Danielle Moné Truitt [Sergeant Ayanna Bell] has been fun. It’s so nice to come back into the Law & Order world and have the themes to find the relationships that make up who we are to each other.
TV DRAMA: Last but not least, working with Mariska Hargitay. Was that like getting back on a bike? The dynamic seems precisely the same.
MELONI: What you see is people who know each other, love each other, respect each other, have singularly unique relationships with each other off the screen, and I think that translates to on the screen. The fans help that along, their enthusiasm for what they know and yearn for. All that stuff is baked into the cake of when we get together.
TV DRAMA: Will there be Bensler? Will Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler get together?
MELONI: I wish I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you!