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Doubly Good 'Law & Order'
Special Crossover Episodes Pack Twice the Punch

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2000; Page C01

"Law & Order" and its spin-off, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," are not shows to warm up to. They're brittle, cryptic crime dramas laced with dark, cynical humor. But they're also among the most compelling dramatic shows on TV, and they share a clickety-click style that is unmistakable.

They're tight ships, both of them, reflecting the no-frills storytelling favored by executive producer Dick Wolf. The two ships meet in the night in a special two-part drama called "Entitled" that begins as an episode of "Special Victims Unit" ("SVU") at 9 tonight on Channel 4 and then continues as an episode of "Law & Order" at 10.

The casts of both series mingle, visiting one another's shows in what proves a successful experiment in cross-pollination.

"Entitled" begins with "SVU" top cops Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay as Detectives Stabler and Benson--sexy partners who specialize in sex crimes-- investigating the violent death of a 35-year-old salesman and "ladies' man." His body is found, pantsless, in a car near a bridge in Central Park. The victim has been shot in the back of the head with a great big gun.

Very quickly, the case leads the SVU detectives to the matriarch of one of New York's oldest and richest political families, called the Mulroneys but apparently meant to remind us of the Kennedys. The Mulroneys, who appear to be liberal Democrats, have had several personal tragedies that became public. "This family doesn't need any more martyrs," declares Regina Mulroney, the widow who runs the clan.

Here we come to another very good reason to watch this two-hour special: Regina Mulroney is played by Jane Alexander, veteran actress and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. She certainly imparts Mrs. Mulroney with as much stature as one character can hold. A marble statue of this babe would be a redundancy.

In the second hour of the drama she gets to make the observation "Old age stinks," yet does even that with dignity.

The writers go too far, though, when they have her warning a member of the district attorney's office, "You come after me, I will crush you." Too melodramatic. Wolf should have crossed out that line when he read the script. Mrs. Mulroney wouldn't be that corny, not as Alexander nobly embodies her. Helping out immeasurably are Noelle Beck as fragile daughter Stephanie Mulroney and Josef Sommer at his starchy-sleaziest as the family attorney.

These people are so prominent and wealthy that they aren't interrogated by cops but rather deign to grant them a brief audience.

About 20 minutes into the "SVU" hour, characters from "Law & Order" start popping up, including Jerry Orbach and Jesse L. Martin as Detectives Briscoe and Green. The assistant district attorney, played by Sam Waterston, is eager to prove he's not afraid of the Mulroney money, but the D.A. himself, played by Steven Hill, is an old family friend, and Mrs. Mulroney expects special treatment and no bones about it.

Other stalwarts from the two series include S. Epatha Merkerson, as imposing as her name, from "Law & Order" and wickedly witty Richard Belzer from "SVU." Belzer's role is unique in the history of series TV; he played Det. John Munch on "Homicide: Life on the Street" for seven seasons (and on the recent and, alas, low-rated NBC reunion special, "Homicide: The Movie") and then, when "Homicide" was canceled, Wolf hired Belzer to come over and play the same character on "SVU."

He's good to have around, because nobody handles an acerbic aside better than Belzer, although Orbach, on "Law & Order," is a close second. Sometimes the asides are too acerbic, however. When the corpse of a female suspect is found in the back seat of a car in the second hour, one detective says, "Hello, Helen, nice coat." Sometimes the cops and prosecutors on these shows are so hard-boiled, you get the feeling the writers are flaunting how insensitive they can be.

But then, as we said, the shows aren't known for their warmth. What they do have is urgency--all the urgency of an unexpected letter from the IRS.

Once you start watching, it's hard to pull yourself away, and the shows move so quickly that this two-hour special seems shorter than a lot of one-hour shows do. "Fast-paced" is putting it, um, slowly.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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