Thursday, July 14, 2011

Anti-SVU rant

Time for a quick break from Rupert Murdoch's woes.

This year's Emmy nominations are out, and as Mike Hale put it in the New York Times, the Best Actress category once again contains "one of the biggest Emmy mysteries: the Mariska Hargitay Perpetual Nomination, now in its seventh year."

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit started out with such promise. For one thing, it wasn't Law and Order, which was starting to look a little threadbare. For another, it kept one of my favorite characters alive: John Munch, from the acclaimed but low-rated Homicide: Life on the Street.

Then I watched it.

I gave it three seasons, more or less, before realizing it was a gigantic waste of my time. (I'm either terribly forgiving or a slow learner.) Why have its leads, Hargitay and Christopher Meloni, been acclaimed for their work on this show? Their overblown hystrionics are totally unconvincing. When Hargitay plays tough, I wince with embarrassment for her. Meloni similarly plays streetwise so badly, it hurts.

Perhaps it's not their fault, though. They could well be decent actors trapped by bad scripts. It certainly seems as if for Dick Wolf's writers, anger is the only emotion and subtlety is merely an unfamiliar word in the dictionary. That, at least, is how I explain SVU's biggest crime: the emasculation of the character of John Munch.

Munch was never the standout detective on Homicide, but considering the company he kept, that was no disgrace. He had his annoying traits, but so did they all: Pembleton his arrogance, Bayliss his tortured uncertainty, Lewis his hypersensitive suspiciousness, Bolander his weary impatience with his younger colleagues, and so on. Munch held his own among them, the dents in his personal armor as distinctive as, and no more or less honorable than, his fellow detectives'. The fraught relations between them were well-earned and believable, their rare moments of camaraderie genuinely touching.

After crossing over to SVU, Munch initially was the annoying jester to Benson and Stabler's shining knights, accorded little respect and treated as backup. The producers disavowed his Baltimore roots, allowing the writers to destroy the character's continuity and to recast him as a born-and-bred New Yorker whose time in Charm City was, at best, a distasteful memory. In an infamous rant, he denigrated his former squad as a bunch of "mental midgets."

Eventually he was reduced to a joyless zombie, his brooding cynicism a superficial affect to distinguish him from his cohorts. His standout episodes -- of which I can remember only two during those first few seasons -- made him as mawkishly sentimental and as prone to angry outbursts as any of his cohorts, too. Munch had become one of Dick Wolf's shadow puppets.

Why does playing one of these puppets keep getting some of these actors nominated for awards?

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