Law & Ordocki #50: The Beginning
Welcome to the 50th Law & Ordocki! Ever since September 8th 2014, this has been the only source for critical reviews of the Law & Order franchise generally and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit specifically. I know, I know, how did it take me so long to get here. The point is, I’m here now, and I’ve got a special episode for this special occasion. It’s none other than “Payback”, aka the pilot to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, first aired September 20th 1999. Imagine. Not only can SVU buy beer, it is a year short of being able to rent a car. With the exception of two characters who already previously existed, “Payback” introduces us to the whole crew: Stabler, Benson, Cassidy, Jeffries. Some of those names will stick out, others. Nature of the beast. “Payback”, both compared to ‘classic’ SVU and what it’s ultimately (d)evolved into, is some really wild shit. The easy comparison in Season 1 of The Simpsons but it’s appropriate. Cragen doesn’t suggest detectives go out for some frosty chocolate milkshakes, but he does offer them red vines from a huge ass tub. No, really.
Director Jean de Segonzac sets the scene pretty effectively: when in doubt, rainstorm. Instant mood. Our heroes, Benson and Stabler, arrive to take a case over from the 2-7 (that’s the Law & Order precinct). 2-7 cop explains it’s a cab driver with multiple stab wounds by the name of Victor Spicer. The assailant didn’t take the $40 in the cigar box. Stabler questions why they’re there. “Stabbings aren’t necessarily sexual. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. 2-7 cop: “Whoever did this sliced off his cigar and took it with ‘em. Is that specific enough?” Benson: “Works for me.” CREDITS! This opener does all it needs to, which is differentiate itself from Law & Order. SVU: This one has cut off penises.
Jeffries, a black woman, says there isn’t much doubt on cause of death, given he was stabbed multiple times and his penis was severed and taken as a trophy. Munch responds: “do you think your conclusional pole vaults are personality or gender-driven?”. What a fucked up thing to say to a co-worker; basically he’s calling out her judgment as being clouded by her gender. Add to it the rumors that Jeffries actress Michelle Hurd and Richard Belzer didn’t get along behind the scenes and the picture grows uglier. What a fucking weird line. Later, though, Jeffries gets Munch back by implying he doesn’t eat pussy. It’s a real Algonquin Roundtable with these characters.
It looks like he’s going to grab her boobs, doesn’t it?
The first thing to spring to mind about the pilot is how it looks. Given how grim and moody and dark classic SVU looks, it’s shocking that this resembles, well, any other police procedural. Who told those fuckers brightness existed? Shit looks like the bizarro version of the city in Dark City. There’s also a lighter tone; characters crack jokes and not all of them are gallows humor that comes from a familiarity that we live in a sick, depraved world. Rape can be funny? Season 1 of SVU takes place in a reality where Daniel Tosh won the war. Honestly, I could see how it could have worked. No doubt actual Sex Crimes detectives are desensitized to the horrors they face each day and leave space for levity instead of fuming about how much they hate rapists and pedophiles all day. Alas, it was not to be; showrunner Robert Palm left after this year and was replaced by ER’s and homosexuality’s Neal Baer. (A gay man named Baer? That’s amazing! It’s like an ice cream man named Cone!)
“Payback” does a good job of immediately establishing characters and their personalities. For Dean Winters’ Brian Cassidy, for instance, he’s the dumbest man alive. “Sir, if the body’s dead, is that considered a sex crime?” That’s the detective equivalent of Ralph Wiggum going “what’s a battle?” or “my cat’s breath smells like cat food”. The show establishes SVU is all-volunteer so the idea that Cassidy chose this job out of all the others beggars belief. Maybe he saw Mariska Hargitay sign up for sex crimes too and followed suit. John Munch consistently alludes to his time in Baltimore, aka Homicide: Life on the Street, and how he’ll never go back there. It makes me think John Waters and Cal Ripken Jr. drove him right outside city limits, threw him out of their Studebaker and told him to stay out. As for Jeffries, really it’s just that “Munch doesn’t munch” one-liner but she’s third string alongside, like, the stiff as hell son of Jerry Orbach. I would not be surprised if Dick Wolf hired her purely for diversity purposes.
Meet Ken Briscoe, nephew of Lennie, son of Jerry, total blank screen presence. Good thing the show only gives him about a line of dialogue per episode.
Benson hits upon a red flag with their investigation: the registered hack license belongs to Victor Spicer, who’s in Rikers for prostitution, among other things. I like the idea of a male prostitute cab driver. Think Taxi Driver meets American Gigolo. He says “take a number” when asked who’d want to cut his dick off and openly hits on Stabler. So the question becomes who was the target: real Spicer or fake Spicer. Real Spicer is a “disco queen” as Benson calls him, so who wouldn’t want him dead? Stabler is all in on the “gay theory”, as it’s termed, and Munch and Cassidy go visit the men who were busted for soliciting Victor Spicer in order to find their wives’ whereabouts. Apparently in 1999 you couldn’t ask a woman for her alibi, you had to go to her husband. The gay theory loses credence when they find a piece of a fingernail with red nail polish on it. “Could be a he-she”, Stabler defends his theory. He-She! It has been many, MANY years since I heard that one. I’m not going to go on some whole thing because I know language evolves and what was considered fine in 1999 is no longer considered fine, but it’s still jarring to hear. And like I said, he-she. I expected liberal usage of “tranny”, but that one got me good. It’s like if Munch called an Asian person a “celestial”; you almost have to applaud the agedness of the slur.
Owing to it being the pilot, the formula hasn’t become mechanized yet, so there are strange outliers such as Stabler testifying in court in the first half hour of the show. The scene gets weirder because it’s less Stabler providing testimony and more a back and forth between him and the defense attorney that’s pitching the show. Like, the attorney asks Stabler “are you obsessed with sex, detective?” and then suggests he’s the Ken Starr (holy dated reference, Batman!) of the NYPD. Stabler, for his part, says “I think sex should be one of the best parts of life, not the worst”. When he refers to the defendant, an accused flasher, of having “shortcomings”, said defendant whips out his genitals in open court while screaming. Amidst titters of laughter he’s led out of the room by bailiffs. He is, we’re told, a city councilman. WHERE ARE WE?
There has not been one shred of characterization in 15 years of television appearances to suggest Elliot Stabler enjoys sex, or really anything that isn’t beating up perverts.
The fake Victor Spicer turns out to be Steven Panachek, a Czech national with a wife and young child. Or is he? They run his fingerprints through the relevant databases and come to a shocking conclusion, one that Cragen warns Stabler about, specifically his partner’s reaction. In a true show that this is the 1990s, Panachek is a serial rapist war criminal Serb from the Yugoslav Wars. Now, Cragen was making an ominous reference to Olivia’s backstory, but I prefer to think she’s just rabidly anti-Serb. Thy did get up to some mischief once Yugoslavia broke up. (Laughing imagining Olivia with a Bosnia pennant like one of Homer’s pennants.) Finding out Stefan Tanzic—vic’s real name—was under indictment causes Benson to go hog wild on the widow, yelling and asking her what it was like to be a rapist. Stabler warns her one more interaction like that and she’s probably off the case and out of SVU. It’s very cute how premiere episodes establish stakes that will never, ever be followed up on. Like, Stabler once picked up a suspect by his legs and pushed him around like a vacuum cleaner. It solved the case but that is not the point.
It’s hilarious that the crux of “Payback” becomes IS OLIVIA BENSON TOO MUCH OF A WOMAN TO WORK SEX CRIMES? Sure, Michelle Hurd also works there but we’re not getting her perspective anytime soon. This is Dick Wolf town, see. Olivia cries when she tells a blind victim of Tanzic’s that he’s dead, to which Stabler reminds her “there’s no crying in baseball”. Things get worse when they seek out another suspect and find her son is obviously a Stefan Tanzic rape baby. Again, it’s absurd to see Meloni play the level headed one with Mariska as the hothead who can’t control her emotions. It’s like if for the first Seinfeld Jerry was a balding Woody Allen impression whereas George was tall, thin and neat. You can tell the actors are uncomfortable too, because while Benson can and does get heated, her natural role is preventing Stabler from killing people. As for Stabler, you’re always waiting on him to go berserker mode.
1999 was so long ago this magnifying glass constituted the entirety of CSU.
There is an argument to be made that a police procedural that wraps things up in a neat little package in 43 minutes is not necessarily equipped to deal with weighty subjects such as ethnic cleansing, mass rape, religious conflict, whatever the hell Bosniaks are. Well, you’re not going to hear it from this writer. I think such weighty subjects should only be broached on network television. The pages of newspapers and magazines such as The New Republic and The Nation have eroded their credibility when it comes to these issues so I think our only choice is to look at 79 year old TV gargoyle Dick Wolf for the proper perspective. NATO bombing: go or no go? Rip those headlines, Dick, and use the “articles” to line the birdcage of your many golden geese.
Given how she’s posthumously described, she ought to look like Crazy Cat Lady here, drinking from a bagged bottle of Thunderbird.
Here’s some more early installment weirdness: the first and only onscreen appearance of Serena Benson, mother to Olivia. They’re having dinner and explain in no uncertain turns that Olivia is a product of rape. I noted the two full wine glasses, which is funny because later episodes establish Serena as a Jim Lahey-esque drunk. But this time she’s holding it together! The scene makes the implicit explicit and succeeds in shading in more of the principals’ personal lives. Stabler, for instance, is called away from a teachers conference for one of his gaggle of children, and his wife Kathy is briefly seen. At the dinner, Olivia asks her mom if she’d want to kill her rapist, to which mom points out she’d be in jail throughout Olivia’s childhood if that had occurred. Would you want that? I dunno, maybe? Like I said, Serena Benson was an abusive alcoholic. It’s not a fair question is what I’m saying.
It’d be funny if John was one of those Sopranos characters who thinks eating a woman’s pussy is actually gay.
The suspect pool narrows to the mother of the rape baby and the owner of the creatively titled Sarajevo Restaurant. She’s got a fucked up hand and a missing fingernail, adding to the circumstantial evidence. The former is appalled she’d be prosecuted for killing this man, whereas with the latter we get our first case of SVU royally fucking up an arrest. The restaurateur asks if she can call her lawyer, the cops begrudgingly allow her that as opposed to cuffing her and letting her call her lawyer down at the precinct, then she grabs a knife and stabs herself in the gut in full view of patron, cop and bystander alike. She whispers something in Stabler’s ear and passes away. I wonder what kind of paperwork this death entails.
That face when your prime suspect is allowed to stab herself to death.
From her confession to the police and SPECIAL GUEST STAR ANGIE HARMON BECAUSE WE HAVEN’T HIRED AN ADA ACTOR YET it’s clear Marta—that’s the surviving killer—suffers from deep-seated trauma that seeing Tanzic brought to the fore and thus she can’t be considered fully culpable for her actions. Angie Harmon doesn’t want to go to trial so she’s willing to go Man 2, which will translate to a year and a half in a psychiatric hospital. Cragen calls Benson and Stabler into his office and chews them out, tearing apart their shoddy policework and poking holes in Marta’s version of the crime. Olivia defiantly states “I think we did the one thing that’s going to allow me to sleep tonight”, to which Cragen warns “you just used your ‘get out of jail free’ card on this case, Olivia. There’s only one in the pack”. I would argue, based on the series, there’s about 50 or 60 cards to that pack. I love him, but Dann Florek’s threats carry less weight than Barney Fife’s.
We’re all stars at the Republican Smoke Show
This is one of the few scripts across the entirety of the franchise to solely bear Dick Wolf’s name, and from this we can begin to unravel the enigma of the man. For this pilot he ripped the biggest headline of all, war in Europe, and made it the basis of the sex crime. I actually have a copy of some draft of the pilot script (12th or 13th revision I think). There aren’t a whole lot of differences, but I thought I would share with you a few tidbits of trivia and some moments that didn’t make the cut. Instead of opening on a rainy night, we open with Benson in bed, receiving a call to get down to a crime scene.
What the hell is with the Triscuits and peanut butter shit? Was Dick trying for a scene akin to the one in Cobra where Stallone uses a scissors to cut some pizza? The namedrop of Sheryl Crowe is odd as well. It seems completely out of place with the rest of the show; I suppose he was going for some evocative eroticism, really use Mariska Hargitay like the object that she is.
Then there’s this charged exchange:
Like, I don’t know how else you interpret that other than Benson and Stabler are having an affair. This whole opener is excised from the actual episode, so maybe at some point somebody said to Dick “hey, we should chart Stabler’s marriage falling apart, rather than already have it in disarray cause he’s fucking Jayne Mansfield’s kid”. Whatever the intent with this ‘banter’, the tone doesn’t fit the rest of the script at all, so it again makes sense it didn’t make the final episode.
I’m guessing this one was lost because they already had enough scenes establishing just how stupid Brian Cassidy is:
The only other thing I can remember is the script says Stabler has three kids, all girls, whereas the filmed pilot changes it to “four children”. For whatever reason Dick Wolf decided giving Stabler a son provided more storytelling avenues. Not sure about that one, cause it takes him like 10 seasons to get a spotlight show. So there you have it: “Payback” script vs. screen.
Needless to say, this hour of television is nearly unrecognizable when compared to both the platonic ideal of SVU and SVU in its Season 24 form. I suppose the question is, would the show have gone on to such success if it kept this tone, or was a radical realignment necessary? It’s difficult to say without a broader context, by which I mean more episodes of Season 1 to judge. But if I went solely on this, I would be surprised if it outlasted the original, much less started breaking records. One thing that’s undeniable is the chemistry between the two leads. They had it down pat from the beginning. Say what you like about Dick Wolf—that he’s a hack who produces in bulk puerile copaganda—but he struck upon a goldmine when he created SVU and decided the female lead hated rape, like really hated it, whereas the male despised pedophilia. If anything, Wolf should’ve gone further and given specific dislikes to the supporting players. Dean Winters hates frottage, Munch wants to abolish foot stuff, Cragen is renowned for cuffing the majority of inflation perps, etc.
Yeah, don’t get Dick Wolf started on what he thinks really happened in former Yugoslavia in the 90s.
Thank you for reading this long, rambling look at the humble beginnings of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. I have a few candidates for #51 of this series, but let it be said none of them are as jarring as “Payback”. We’ll be back to the classics in no time. That means one thing and one thing only: Ice-T and his ponytail, baby! Maybe that’s when it all fell into place. It needed a “Cop Killer” to be a cop to flourish.