Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Goodbye Stabler, Goodbye Cuddy

It's always awkward when a popular show loses a major cast member, but this year there were two particularly painful departures. Chris Meloni opted not to return to "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," after twelve seasons headlining the program with Mariska Hargitay. Over on "House," Lisa Edelstein has vacated after seven. Thus, the abrupt removal of Detective Elliot Stabler and Dr. Lisa Cuddy from our lives.

Eager to avoid the prospect of these events becoming shark-jumping moments, both high-rated shows have barreled ahead. Stabler has been replaced by new characters played by Kelli Giddish and Danny Pinto. Dr. Foreman (Omar Epps) was promoted to Cuddy's vacant administrator position, and a new doctor played by Charlyne Yi was added to the cast of "House." It's early yet in the broadcast season, and it remains to be seen how well both shows will manage. However, it's going to be an uphill climb. Both "Law & Order: SVU" and "House" are very popular, but they're also fighting the inertia of being shows that have been on the air for unusually long runs. We've seen multiple cast changes in these shows before, notably the assistant district attorneys on "Law & Order: SVU," and "House's" diagnosis team. However, Stabler and Cuddy were central roles, and their absence is going to change the alchemy of their respective shows considerably.

That Edelstein and Meloni were both expected to return didn't help matters, so neither of their characters received proper sendoffs last year. In the season premiere of "Law & Order: SVU," Detective Stabler simply quit after being placed on administrative leave after a shootout in last year's finale. Detective Benson, Hargitay's character, was seen on the phone making inquiries about him throughout the episode. A brief scene where she breaks down in tears, after learning Stabler had chosen to leave the unit, was all we got for a goodbye. In the next episode, it was back to business as usual. "House" fortuitously ended last season with Dr. House (Hugh Laurie), driving his car into Cuddy's house in a fit of spite, giving her a very good reason to never speak to him again. However, we were denied the emotional confrontation between the two characters that surely would have resulted if Cuddy had returned. This also marks the end of years of character development and relationship building involving Cuddy, leaving a gaping, ungainly void in the story.

Now compare this to the departure of Steve Carrell from "The Office," which was built up to for weeks and made every possible effort to ready the audience for the changeover to a new leading man. This wasn't necessary, but it conveyed a certain honesty in its approach, an acknowledgement that "The Office" was about to make a radical change. Of course this wasn't possible with "Law & Order: SVU" or "House" because of the timing of the actors' contract negotiations falling through. But it's hard to shake the feeling that characters who have been familiar presences on television for so long deserve to be sent off with a little more fanfare. When "Criminal Minds" dropped A.J. Cook last year, at least they worked out how to bring her back for the premiere, for a chance to say goodbye. After all, close co-workers and colleagues don't just drop out of people's lives without consequences. And these consequences are often a good source of drama, which makes it even more odd that they should be so quickly downplayed and swept under the rug.

Anyway, it's expected that Mariska Hargitay will also be leaving "Law & Order: SVU" in the near future. There were reports earlier this year that NBC was seeking out a replacement for her, and that she might only appear for the first half of this season. Transitioning in two new leads at this point makes sense. If all goes well, the show can familiarize the audience with the new detectives and move on without Meloni and Hargitay, as other "Law & Order" properties have swapped our popular leads in the past. The procedural format is better suited to this than most other shows. However, no "Law & Order" leads have had tenures as long as Meloni and Hargitay, who have been with the show from the beginning and are very closely associated with it. After the original "Law & Order" lost Jerry Orbach, the show was never the same, though it ran for several more years and ran through many more cast changes. I expect the same will be true for "Law & Order: SVU."

As for "House," it's Hugh Laurie's show and it'll go on for as long as FOX can keep convincing him to keep playing the character. However, Cuddy was the closest thing House had to a regular antagonist, not to mention her being positioned as his major love interest for multiple seasons and storylines. It's going to be hard for someone else to fill her shoes in either capacity. On the other hand, "House" has been in a rut lately, and finally pairing up House and Cuddy officially last season didn't help anything. And though I'll miss her, I will admit to no small satisfaction, knowing Lisa Cuddy dumped House's malevolent ass for good this time.

Honestly though, I think both shows are getting close to their expiration dates, and I'm glad Meloni and Edelstein took the initiative to move on, hopefully to more interesting roles. Considering how "Law & Order: SVU" and "House" handled the departures - not terribly, but also with little creativity or self-reflection - I don't know how much juice they have left in them. Maybe this could be an opportunity to inject some new blood and return to some early season highs. Or it could be the beginning of the end. It's too soon to tell, but it sure does seem like those sharks are getting jumpy.

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