By Thomas Leffler

Coastal Bend Publishing

I

 feel like a dying breed amongst my peers.

In terms of television, of course, it’s not that serious. But alas, I am one of the few remaining folks of my generation that prefers to sit down and watch a show through the traditional network lens, commercials and all. I’ll catch up with the occasional piece on streaming, but I realize my place is with the old-school tube, dying or not.

So why does traditional TV continue to lose viewers to streaming? Well, here’s the game plan for every network in the past five years:

• ABC: Copy whatever NBC does.

• CBS: Hand Chuck Lorre a blank check and see what happens.

• FOX: Wacky gameshows and cheesy dramas.

• MTV: “Ridiculousness” on an endless loop.

• ESPN: Stephen A. Smith screaming at you.

• NBC: Run established franchises like “The Voice” ragged, while unsuccessfully trying to replace their older hits.

• The rest of cable: “Law & Order” reruns.

Those last two points merge heavy on the minds of NBC executives, who found out one day that cable TV had exhausted the product. On certain nights, an average channel-changer like myself can see three separate “L&O” episodes playing at the same time. It gets a little tiring, even for a longtime fan of the show.

Seeing the same episode beats multiple times a week, on “SVU” for example, can confuse viewers on what to do with their time. If there are 20-plus seasons of episodes to go back and watch, why do the new ones matter? There are only so many times we can see Mariska Hargitay save a kidnapped girl, right?

NBC knew this oversaturation of the market was upon them, calling on an old friend for a new direction. After a stint at the Gotham Police Department in HBO Max’s “Harley Quinn,” Chris Meloni returns to the “Order” scene with the brand-new “Organized Crime,” a Thursday night companion to “SVU.” 

This show is no companion piece, however, as its the strongest effort of Dick Wolf and company in quite some time. The show expands possibilities through longer-form storytelling, something that is a break from the “Order” if you will. Gone is villain of the week; in is villain of the season (played in soapy greatness by Dylan McDermott).

Meloni returns as Elliot Stabler, going deep into the New York underground in an attempt to find his wife’s killers, tied to McDermott’s millionaire mobster character Richard Wheatley. The Stabler-Wheatley scenes are classic cat-and-mouse, two sides of the same coin, proud men that are ruthless in their professions. Meloni’s acting is top-notch throughout, as his presence alone boosts the gravitas of the remaining cast. The other players, though I’ve only seen four episodes, are already well-established due to their ties to Stabler.

The other standout is Tamara Taylor, who serves as link between the Stabler-Wheatley worlds as Wheatley’s ex-wife Angela. Her character, the good-natured soul in a room of mobsters, is usually solid. But Taylor does more and knocks it out of the park. Solid morally, but her character arc is malleable. Does she get together with Stabler? Does she just remain a friend? Does she turn on him? All three are possible, and that intrigue is what creates appointment television. Those are questions I’m willing to wait the week for.

It’s not all positive, I suppose, as there is a twinge of cringe in the middle of the strong scenes. There is a fine line between interesting and awkward, and this show tilts toward the awkward when talking about technology. One of Stabler’s new crewmates, Jazz, is almost too much of a computer genius. When someone mentions a potential clue, Jazz has that clue pulled up through the internet five seconds later, usually with an address or contact. Later, the team investigates a doctor for buying online prescription meds, and within 20 seconds Jazz announces “I am hacking into your server” right in front of the doctor. Doesn’t she need a warrant? Or more time? 

Still, the show has an absolute place on the schedule as modern noir, something “Order” tried and failed to do with “Criminal Intent.” The difference between “Intent” and “Organized Crime” is the longer-form aspect, a more in-depth look on a subject that is made for TV. The other difference, of course, is the character study of Stabler, who is such a complicated character that I can’t figure out the full deal. Even after a decade of supposedly knowing the ebbs and flows, Meloni’s performance takes me in a new direction with each new hour.

Unlike something along the lines of “The Voice” or “SVU,” “Organized Crime” is fresh, appointment television. That’s how networks can still hold off mass audiences from cutting the cord. Hopefully my peers will join me back on the traditional side Thursday nights.

•tleffler@mysoutex.com•

 

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