Underrated Actors: Christopher Meloni - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Underrated Actors: Christopher Meloni

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"Chris Meloni to leave Law and Order SVU after season 12" was the headline of Geoff Shearer's Feb. 6 article of Australia's Courier-Mail newspaper. The article said that upon exiting the highly-rated NBC series in 2011, Meloni was possibly going to do theatre or film work.

I first became aware of Meloni from watching the HBO series Oz. Unknown to me at the time, he had had a supporting role on one of my favorite sitcoms of the early 1990s. He voiced the character of Spike on Dinosaurs. He had been in a couple of failed TV series prior to that. Yet, it wasn't until he joined the cast of Oz did people en masse take notice of him. And, for good reason! Meloni was nothing short of brilliant on that show.

At the same time that Meloni was on Oz, he was cast as Detective Elliott Stabler on the spinoff, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 1999 where he's starred ever since. While the various other spinoffs have rotated in and out different lead characters, Meloni and co-star Mariska Hargitay have remained as the two consistent faces on that program for 12 years. Understandably, Meloni and Hargitay's characters as written and performed are two of the best characters on television.

Those characters are two detectives who investigate sex-related crimes. Each episode is based on actual news headlines. It's the second spinoff of which there are now four and it has become the most popular of the Law & Order franchise. I didn't get into it at first. My parents were obsessed, especially my mom who would watch the show religiously.

I really didn't understand why until I saw an episode, which originally aired in April 2006 entitled "Fault." Lou Diamond Philips guest starred as a child molestor who kidnaps two kids. Despite the powerful subject matter, the episode wasn't really about that. It was about the two detectives Elliott Stabler and Olivia Benson (Hargitay). The whole thing was a test of their relationship and how far they would be willing to go for the job and for each other.

When I saw it, I immediately identified with it. It wasn't just about the steps cops take in order to solve a case. It was about what the cops go through and how they're affected by their cases. Anchored by Meloni and Hargitay, the show has only soared since the writers and producers have done their level best with making the show not just another procedural but also Americans dealing with serious social issues.

Since that 2006 episode, I have increasingly watched the show, new episodes as well as re-runs. All have been interesting, and all have been more and more personal to the two main characters, making the audience care more and more about them, which is a good thing.

September 2009 was the 11th season premiere and was also when I started watching the show on a regular basis. It was the first time that I actively tuned into NBC to watch the new episodes and when I couldn't, I would record them via DVR. Thankfully, except for one episode this season, I haven't been disappointed. I can't speak with any authority because I haven't seen all the 200+ episodes, but in my opinion the show has only gotten better and this might be the best season ever.

And, call me crazy, but I think the reason I love the 11th season so much is because almost every episode since September has done all that it can to undermine the police investigation process and the criminal justice system as a whole. From witness reliability to police and prosecurial misconduct to DNA tampering, this season wants to prove that the system is flawed.

Guest star Christine Lahti (The West Wing) played the new ballsy, overly aggressive Assistant District Attorney who ultimately runs into trouble but not before forcing Stabler to throw into question arrests that he's made and even convictions that he's helped. In the opening episode of the season, titled "Unstable," Stabler learns that he arrested the wrong man for a rape and even helped to put that innocent man behind bars.

Then, in the third episode of this season, an episode titled "Solitary," Stabler had to deal with the fact that he helped to destroy a man's life by worsening his prison conditions. Finally, in the eighth episode of this season, "Turmoil," Stabler's role as a cop interferes with his role as a father, yet again, but this time his son is in the middle. Watching Meloni portray Stabler as he deals with all those forces that are collapsing on top of him has been amazing.

His character is perceived as such a tough guy, so strong and gung-ho. In the witness interrogation room, he's always the one that will be the first to punch a suspect or at least slam him against something if he's not getting his answers. Considering the line of work he's in, dealing with rape victims and sometimes child victims, you think there's a sensitivity that's almost required of him.

That sensitivity to the victims is realized or at least verbalized by him in "Unstable" when he sees guest star Wentworth Miller sorely lacking that sensitivity to victims. Generally though, Stabler is regarded as bullheaded, thick-skinned and aggressive. Yet, the first few episodes of this season more than prove that Stabler is more than that. Thanks to the writers and especially thanks to Meloni's acting, we see that he does have depth and compassion, and even suffering beyond what you may think.

Having not seen all of the 200+ episodes, I can't say that these recent episodes are more unique in showing the range and different dimensions to Stabler, but it just seems more accented or more underlined this season as well as last. In other words, it feels more concentrated, as if Meloni and the writers are really digging deep into Stabler. It's my hope that it's this concentration that will yield Meloni another Emmy nomination. I would ask you all to consider Season 10, Episode 3, entitled "Swing." The scene that Meloni has with guest star Ellen Burstyn, playing his mother, was phenomenal.

Yet, out of the 12 years that Meloni has put into this show, he's only received one Emmy nomination. Conversely, his co-star Hargitay has been nominated six times. Not that she didn't deserve them, including the one year that she won, it's just that Hargitay is quoted as saying that "I don't think she [Benson] could be without him [Stabler]. She loves him, he's her other half." The episode I cited back in 2006 called "Fault" cemented that idea that these two are strongly bonded. Therefore, I don't see how Hargitay can be so inundated with awards while her counterpart is completely overlooked.

Perhaps, Meloni is so good that he's taken for granted, but I'm begging the Emmys to stop taking him for granted, if this is his last year, give the man the recognition he so overwhelmingly deserves. I know the Emmys have fallen in love with Hugh Laurie and Jon Hamm, after having been in love with James Gandolfini, Martin Sheen and James Spader in the past, but Christopher Meloni is the most underrated actor currently working in a primetime, dramatic series. He's in my mind the best, second only to Michael C. Hall.

Why has his 20 years on TV not yielded more accolades or even acknowledgments?

There was a recent story in the news and a book called "Picking Cotton" that detailed how witness reliability in rape cases isn't always accurate. There's even some racial issues that arise when it comes to white women having to identify black men. The last new episode of 2009 illustrated how DNA is no longer a reliable source because it can bed easily manipulated in labs now. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is known for its over-the-top twists and turns, and this season's effort to chip away public faith in what police and prosecutors do, or in the least greatly frustrate the two main characters may be a ratchet up too high. Nevertheless, the show always manages to tap into great emotional, human stories.

Here are some of my favorite episodes of the series: 

Season 3, Episode 7 = "Sacrifice" guest starring Mark Paul Gosselar
Season 4, Episode 15 = "Pandora" guest starring Pam Grier
Season 5, Episode 11 = "Escape" guest starring Milo Ventimiglia
Season 5, Episode 20 = "Lowdown" guest starring Michael Beach
Season 7, Episode 5 = "Strain" guest starring Ernest Waddell
Season 7, Episode 18 = "Venom" guest starring Ludacris
Season 8, Episode 11 = "Burned" guest starring Blair Underwood
Season 9, Episode 15 = "Undercover" guest starring Shareeka Epps
Season 9, Episode 16 = "Closet" guest starring Bailey Chase and Bill Pullman
Season 9, Episode 17 = "Authority" guest starring Robin Williams
Season 10, Episode 3 - "Swing" - guest starring Ellen Burstyn
Season 10, Episode 7 - "Wildlife" where Stabler gets shot
Season 11, Episode 1 - "Unstable" guest starring Christine Lahti and Wentworth Miller
Season 11, Episode 3 - "Solitary" guest starring Stephen Rea
Season 11, Episode 8 - "Turmoil" guest starring Christine Lahti
 
Outstanding episode of original Law & Order
 
Season 18, Episode 6 = "Political Animal"

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