Who would have guessed that Special Victims Unit would be the last Law & Order standing? The thirteenth season of Dick Wolf’s sex crimes-centric procedural debuted Wednesday night with some questionable cast shake-ups. The most significant? Christopher Meloni’s off-screen departure after twelve years as Elliot Stabler.
The Law & Order universe is no stranger to cast changes; the original series concluded with an entirely different roster from when it first premiered. But consistency has been one of SVU’s strongest assets over the years—sure, the co-stars have come and gone, but stars Meloni and Mariska Hargitay were solid. The chemistry between Stabler and Benson, the frustratingly platonic, perfectly balanced lead detectives, was as important as the cases of the week.
Not anymore: While Stabler’s presence was felt in Wednesday’s season premiere, his permanent absence was confirmed by episode’s end. No, he’s not dead, but he quit, which is almost as final. Those of us hoping Meloni might find his way back onto SVU should probably accept that the ship has sailed. Which is actually okay. I’ll miss Stabler, but it’s not as though his role in recent seasons made SVU any more of a success. The series was growing stale, and if a cast change is what it takes to freshen it up, so be it. Meloni’s decision to leave may not have been welcome, but it could very well prove beneficial in the long run.
I say that because “Scorched Earth” was one of the most solid SVU episodes we’ve seen in some time. The case, inspired by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, was captivating, the interplay between characters was interesting, and the emotional moments hit home. Just as we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to Meloni—no one knew last season’s finale would be his last episode—Olivia didn’t get to say goodbye to Elliot. Her quiet breakdown felt both appropriate and in character. The show must go on, but she can’t just ignore being separated from her partner of over a decade.
But out with the old, in with the new. We met Detective Amanda Rollins, played by Chase’s Kelli Giddish. She didn’t make all that exciting a first impression, but I welcome the addition of another female detective. I just hope the rumors of a reduced role for Hargitay’s Benson don’t come to pass—I like the idea of these women working together, not being interchangeable. Next week, we’ll meet Danny Pino’s Detective Nick Amaro, who is stepping into Stabler’s shoes. Honestly, I’m not sure either of these additions were necessary: the season premiere’s strengths were in its returning characters, not the new blood.
In addition to regulars Richard Belzer as Sgt. Munch, Ice-T as Detective Tutuola, and Dann Florek as Captain Cragen, we saw the return of ADA Cabot, played by the awesome Stephanie March. (Next week, it’s the equally great Diane Neal as Casey Novak.) Now that our favorite duo has been split up, these prosecutors may be the most compelling reason to continue watching the show. Not to mention the addition of Linus Roache’s Cutter, the best Law & Order ADA since Jack McCoy. Familiarity is what SVU needs to carry us through this transition, and they could not have picked better people to join the fold.
No matter what diehard Meloni fans think, SVU was long overdue for change. And if change, in this case, means a return to what made this series great in the first place, I’m all for it. Besides, if I start to miss Stabler too much, I can always turn to the many networks that air more SVU reruns than there are hours in a day. Elliot will always be in our hearts—and on USA.