"Law & Order: SVU" fans turned out in force for last week's long-awaited reunion of former partners Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler in a crossover that introduced its new spinoff, "Law & Order: Organized Crime."
"I was not prepared" for the fan response, said Christopher Meloni, whose Stabler returned to NBC's "SVU" for the first time since 2011, when the actor left the show. "It's overwhelming and it's wonderful and it's very appreciated."
Meloni now headlines "Organized Crime" (Thursdays, 10 EDT/PDT), which follows "SVU" (9 EDT/PDT), now in its 22nd season. The two averaged about 8 million viewers, and ranked as TV's most-watched scripted programs last week, according to Nielsen.
Unbeknownst to Benson, Stabler – who abruptly left the New York Police Department in Season 12 when Meloni couldn't come to terms on a new contract – had returned to the force while living in Italy. The two were reunited in last week's episodes when Benson went to investigate a car bombing in which Stabler's wife was the victim. Her subsequent death led Stabler, now a single father of five, to remain in New York and work for the organized crime unit, which is pursuing a larger investigation connected to the bombing.
Besides exploring Stabler's personal life in greater detail, "Organized Crime" features a different storytelling format from the traditional "Law & Order" structure, in which each self-contained episode follows one crime.
Although previous spinoffs have varied from that formula, "Organized Crime" takes it further. Stabler focuses on a central villain, Richard Wheatley (Dylan McDermott), a pharmaceutical executive with crime-family ties, for the debut season. Should the series get a second season, executive producer Dick Wolf promises a series of prolonged, mano a mano battles.
"In a 24-episode season, it's going to be three, eight-episode" chapters, Wolf said, offering shorthand film references for each arc. "The first third of the season is 'The Godfather,' the second third 'American Gangster' and the last third is 'Scarface.' And these villains are going to be really bad guys that give (Stabler) a constant source of energy, outrage, belief in justice and a different way of pursuing criminals than we've had before."
Stabler, famed for breaking the boundaries of police procedure, has "evolved in subtle ways," Wolf said, even though he seemed as hotheaded as ever in last week's return to a world where policing, both in real life and on TV, is trying to adapt in the face of increased public scrutiny.
Stabler "was the most pre-Miranda cop on television and he has come back. And the adjustments that Stabler represents, I'm very proud of," Wolf said.
He credited executive producer Ilene Chaiken ("Empire," "The L Word") for managing "to take a very tough character and make him more sympathetic than he's ever been. You ever think you'd see Stabler cry?"
Meloni explained his initial interpretation of Stabler, and where the character is now.
"I saw (him) as a guy under pressure constantly and I felt that after speaking with real SVU detectives about the pressures they were under and the crimes that they witnessed," he said. "Part of Elliot 2.0 is hopefully his evolution toward having a clearer understanding of the world (being) unjust and then how you adapt yourself to realities that keep punching you in the face."
As popular as the Stabler-Benson pairing is, Wolf said the shows won't overdo crossovers, employing them "whenever it gives both shows a different way to shine," much as he does with NBC's "Chicago Fire," "Chicago Med" and "Chicago PD."
Meloni is happy to be back in the "Law & Order" fold, but he said he has no regrets about leaving in 2011.
"My thinking was: Time to go, so I went. I don't tend to look back, so I didn't," said Meloni, who added that he has "maybe watched 10 minutes" since his departure. "I'm not much of a TV watcher, so it wasn't anything personal."
But "this time around, I think the pressure's off. I feel less pressure than I did when Dick first tasked me with being Elliot Stabler," he said. "I'm a little freer to appreciate everything."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Law & Order: SVU' spinoff teases 'Godfather,' 'Scarface' story arcs