|LAW & ORDER: Special Victims Unit NBC 9-10 PM Debuts Sept. 20 |
Taking a break between scenes of NBC's Law & Order spin-off, Special Victims Unit, Chris Meloni -- a guy who's actually tried to seduce a nun on HBO's prison romp Oz -- still can't help but nervously chuckle when he describes the plot of the bleak episode they're filming. ''This one's about a cheerleader who gets raped and murdered,'' he says. ''It's a lot of laughs.''
Of course, it's not like the original Law & Order leaves viewers rolling in the aisles. But Dick Wolf, who created both shows, insists SVU -- which focuses on New York City detectives who deal almost exclusively with sex crimes -- is ''a sibling, not a clone.'' At times, though, the new show does reach at least Siamese-twin status -- with its familiar opening voice-over (''In the criminal justice system...'' yada, yada, yada), the ''chun-chungs'' before every new scene, and the return of L&O vet Dann Florek.
But unlike the Dragnet-esque ''Just the facts, ma'am'' style of its predecessor, SVU will delve deeper into the private lives of its characters. In the very first episode, for example, we learn that Det. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) was conceived during a rape. About the only personal thing we learned in the first Law & Order was that Mike Logan (Chris Noth) had a thing for plaid ties.
Whatever comic relief there is will come from Homicide: Life on the Street alum Richard Belzer, who is reprising his role as sardonic conspiracy-nut detective John Munch. Once again, Munch will tread the line between witty and bothersome. Says Belzer, ''He has that gallows humor that is necessary to dilute the horror, but other times he talks too much and annoys people.''
As for those annoying whispers that this is little more than L&O lite (or dark, as the case may be) -- would that be so wrong? After all, Law & Order has been NBC's one constant creative and ratings success in a Wednesday lineup that changes more often than Wolf replaces cast members. If the producer can bring that magic to the network's fading Monday night -- where SVU is sandwiched between Thursday reject Veronica's Closet and Dateline at 10 p.m. -- don't be surprised if NBC begs him to make a spin-off of this spin-off next year.
But first, it seems, SVU must endure a rookie hazing ritual. Not only did NBC pit the show against Monday powerhouses Everybody Loves Raymond (CBS), Monday Night Football (ABC), and Ally McBeal (Fox), but the net also refused to station it in the more grisly-plotline-friendly 10 p.m. time slot. ''I shot my wad on this and couldn't get it moved,'' says Wolf of the internal power struggle. Sounds like it's time to call in some backup.