Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Munch retires

In the credit-where-credit-is-due department, hats off to Law & Order: SVU for sending John Munch off in style.

I was hard on the long-running TV show, dumping on the performances of former star Christopher Meloni and current lead Mariska Hargitay. My severest criticism, though, I saved for Dick Wolf and his writing staff, who all but destroyed the character of John Munch they inherited from Homicide: Life on the Street. In particular I was ticked off that they disavowed Munch's Baltimore roots and sanded off all his angular edges. After SVU's first few seasons, I wrote, "Munch had become one of Dick Wolf's shadow puppets."

I stopped watching at that point so I don't know how he was treated from then on. I suppose it's possible the writing got significantly better, and/or the producer and his writers got religion about who John Munch really was. I doubt the writing got better: Wolf's shows have a house style and tone that keeps the writing decent if seldom outstanding. To get significantly better they'd have to be different shows. And as for changing their view of who John Munch was, that would have been risky: the SVU audience had come to expect Munch to be the shriveled husk in Benson and Stabler's shadow.

Munch finally hit mandatory retirement, a consequence of Richard Belzer's decision to cease being a regular cast member (there's widespread expectation he'll return for guest appearances). In the SVU episode "Wonderland Story", the squad holds his retirement party. For a Dick Wolf series the episode is practically a swoon-fest, as the first five minutes or so are a paean to Munch. (When longtime Law & Order star Jerry Orbach left that show, his Lenny Briscoe also ostensibly retiring, there was no celebration at all: Briscoe simply looked around the squad room for a moment before walking out the door.) Hargitay's Benson, Dann Florek's Cragen and Ice-T's Fin all say laudatory, if sarcastic, things about Munch's tenure, and Munch is even given a few moments to do a bit of Belzerian standup at the podium.

The quiet crowning moment of that opening, though, comes when Fin presents Munch with a shadow box of his New York and Baltimore badges. As Fin says "Baltimore shield" an unidentified man yells out, "No no no, we ran his butt out of B-more!" It's Clark Johnson, obviously playing his Homicide character Det. Meldrick Lewis. This follows on the heels of Munch's brief mention of two of his ex-wives, seated together at a table; the actresses are Carol Kane and Ellen McElduff, who portrayed two of Munch's ex-wives on Homicide. (None of them is credited by character name, though.) Nice tip of the hat to Munch's origins, and the most one could expect given SVU's pedigree.

Until the end. The last scene features Munch alone at his desk, cleaning it out. We hear his voice muttering, "Did you pull the ident photos?", but his lips aren't moving. Suddenly we're in a different, equally deserted squad room where a short-sleeved, unmistakably younger Munch is riffling through index cards with suspects. It's a scene from Homicide's pilot, "Gone for Goode", in which Munch is trying to prove to his crusty senior partner that he is, in fact, a good detective by going through booking photos (and talking to himself). It's a lovely, surprising second tip of the hat to a great show. (I wonder if one of "Wonderland Story"'s credited writers, Julie Martin, who also worked on many episodes of Homicide, had a hand in the more than usually respectful take on the earlier series.)

Yet one more little surprise awaits: when the phone rings in SVU-land, dragging Munch out of his Baltimore reverie, he picks it up and answers, "Homicide ... I mean, SVU."

It's a tell. For all the years Munch has been in SVU, his heart is still with his erstwhile fellow homicide detectives in Baltimore. You didn't have to say that, Wolf & co., but you did. Thanks, and good job.

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