The Good: Good episode with good acting, interesting characters and decent plot
The Bad: It's one episode, DVD bonuses are underwhelming, Poor value
The Basics: In an issue solely of value, Law & Order: SVU - The Premiere Episode fails to live up to the strengths of the medium.
I thought when Star Trek had finally gone from exorbitantly priced single-episode VHS tapes and dual-episode DVDs to DVD Season Boxed sets like the rest of the civilized world, I had seen the last of the single-episode priced-to-own "video." I was wrong. Law & Order: SVU, a show I have occasion to enjoy marathons of when I am on business trips and I have Saturday night cable blahs. I have to say, I enjoy the series and I've been an enthusiastic casual viewer of it (i.e. I'll watch it when it's on and I'm not doing anything else). So, when I saw Law & Order: SVU - The Premiere Episode on DVD, I was both pleasantly surprised, not-surprised-at-all, and a little disappointed.
Detectives Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson arrive on the scene of a cab driver's murder to discover that the sexual nature of the crime is that his penis has been lopped off. What seems like it might be a simple case soon becomes a convoluted identity crisis that finds the cabby to be a Serbian war criminal who has as many enemies as New York City has bagel bakeries. Stabler's loyalty to his partner is put in jeopardy when Olivia's backstory comes into play and she is forced to empathize with the victim of the murder as opposed to the victims of the prior rapes.
And Munch shows up.
I mention this last part because in many ways, "Payback" has many of the trappings of a pilot episode. While not catching the viewer with a beginning (i.e. this is not the story of how the Special Victims Unit is formed, though it is clear the squad is fairly new), it is clearly a beginning wherein characters deliver some seriously awkward dialogue in order to provide expository characterization. Detective John Munch is a character who originated on Homicide: Life On The Street (reviewed here!) and his presence here had to be explained. He has little purpose in the episode, save to show up.
I recall when Law & Order: SVU first aired. Ironically, the next day, I happened to catch "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" and she was saying she found the episode distasteful and would probably not be watching it again. Actually, that I remember that after all this time amuses me. That might have more to do with the fact that I watched so few episodes of The Rosie O'Donnell Show than being actually interesting to me.
That said, it was enough to put me off watching Law & Order: SVU for some time; I'm quite sensitive about violence toward women and sex crimes bug me. I've never found watching shows about sexual crimes to be particularly entertaining and as a result, I could not see the appeal of watching a show like "SVU" for a long time. Now, having watched "Payback," I have to say I'm glad I did and the whole concept of the show makes sense to me. It's not about sex crimes, it's about the search for justice and the crimes - being particularly heinous - warrant justice in a remarkably black and white way. As a fan of shows where shades of gray rule, it's refreshing to watch something rather cut and dry like this.
As far as being Law & Order, though, this pilot episode falls dramatically short. The "Order" half of the original concept is almost entirely absent. There's no regular D.A. to handle the trial and the premiere episode of the series ends without one. I have to admit, I was fine with that. As more of a fan of NYPD Blue (season four reviewed here!), I tend to like the stories of the squad as opposed to the concept of Law & Order which was begun as a series of back-to-back half-hour episodes focusing on police work and the prosecutor's struggles.
How do I know so much about the concept of Law & Order when I've only seen one episode of the prime series? Well, the premiere episode of Law & Order is on the disc with the premiere episode of Law & Order: SVU. There are also three featurettes: an introduction to Law & Order, an introduction to Law & Order: SVU and a tour of the SVU squadroom. Having absolutely no interest in Law & Order (less after twenty minutes of hearing the concept of the show and about behind-the-scenes stuff and having now seen the pilot episode), the DVD bonuses on this release are a bit thin.
The SVU-related bonuses are interesting enough, but do not hold up well over multiple viewings. Moreover, there is no commentary on the pilot episode, which I think would have brought more value to the disc.
As for the actual episode, kudos to the Wolf Films enterprises for picking a talented cast and crew to present something that is truly edgy. The storyline is smart and the concept is clever right out of the gate. Whenever a show begins, it has the burden of getting viewers interested. I was interested since almost the first frames of this episode. But more than that, because this episode begins with a squad that is already doing its thing, the show has the added burden of making the viewer feel like they are catching something in progress. From the first frames of the episode, the viewer is made to feel like this is not Olivia and Elliot's first day together and we do not. Instead, there is a camaraderie between the two that comes through instantly and it feels organic.
This is no doubt a function of the quality of the acting in the show. Christopher Meloni, whose work I previously enjoyed in the film Bound (reviewed here!), illustrates his exceptional ability to act by portraying a character who is serious and very human. Meloni is given the unenviable task of giving out a great deal of characterization in the guise of testimony, though he handles it well and with enough realism for the viewer to suspend their disbelief.
It is Mariska Hargitay who steals virtually every scene as Olivia Benson. From the beginning, this plays much more powerfully as her episode and it makes the viewer wonder why she is not top-billed. Her performance is subtle, insinuating a tortured persona who is kept in check by her will. Hargitay is gifted with the ability to emote quite a bit with little movement or facial expression.
Ultimately, though, this came down to "not recommend" for me and here's why: "Payback" is an entertaining start to Law & Order: SVU. The bonus features that focus on SVU are decent, but almost half the bonus content is Law & Order (prime) related and it just did not grab me. The producers of this disc could have stuck on extra Law & Order: SVU footage, even advertisements for other seasons' DVD boxed sets and I would have enjoyed it more. The problem here is there's not much value in a single episode on DVD. It doesn't use the medium well. Discs like this ought to be given away as promotional materials to build enthusiasm with the potential customers for buying the whole season DVD set. There's not enough "SVU" on this disc to sucker me in to that. For that, they should have done at least two episodes of Law & Order: SVU, had at least one commentary track, and made the disc free (or close).
Other than that, though, it's worthwhile.
For other police programs, check out my reviews of:
Pride & Glory
In The Heat Of The Night
For other television and movie reviews, please check out my Index Page for organized listings!
© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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