‘Criminal Stories’ was one of the most star-studded and monumental episodes in recent Law & Order: SVU history. The episode featured cameos from Katie Couric and Questlove of The Roots/Jimmy Fallon fame while Alec Baldwin made his first series network television appearance since 30 Rock went off the air. It also marked the first star that longtime star Mariska Hargitay stepped behind the camera and directed an episode.
However, neither the directorial debut of Hargitay nor the high-powered supporting cast could salvage a very choppy and ultimately mediocre episode.
“Criminal Stories” revolves around the case of a young Muslim woman who is reported to have been violently raped by two white men in Central Park. The SVU squad is dispatched to the case, but have a famed New York journalist, “Jimmy Mac” is now shadowing them, at the behest of the NYPD big wigs so he can do a profile on Benson. Instead of being a shadow, Jimmy Mac turns into the squad’s biggest enemy as he uses his vast system of sources within the NYPD to secure sensitive information which disproves and discredits the victim — as it turns out she was not raped in the park, but possibly somewhere else…or not at all. The young woman’s family and her faith community rail against SVU making their case against two likely suspects even more difficult to win.
So once again, SVU tries to tackle the such broad, sweeping social issues such as: he said/she said, sensationalist journalism, hate crimes, the relationship between the Muslim community and NYPD post 9/11…all wrapped up in a quasi-Tawana Brawley-esque case. When will this series learn that less is more? If the show had stuck with a case where a journalist undermines the squad at every turn, that would’ve been a good episode. Stick with one thing and make it work SVU, you’re trying to hard to make broad, sweeping statements about every societal issue ever and it’s affecting the series.
The writing in this episode is completely unfocused, trying to cram all these issues into a 60 minute episode. Sadly, this effects Baldwin’s character the most as it seems his dialogue was lifted from Chapters 4-6 of How to Write an Asshole Character for Dummies. Jimmy Mac is just so quippy, so egoistical and such a stereotypical male chauvinist. Everything this character says is cliched, so over the top, so trying to be intelligent that you’re dumbfounded at the words coming out of the character’s mouth. Baldwin does a fine job here trying to make the proverbial chicken salad out of chicken shit, but not even his scene-stealing presence can make up for such poor writing.
Yet, despite poor writing, one has to say Mariska Hargitay’s first adventure behind the camera was a success. She deftly handed every scene, including her own, which were probably some of the strongest Benson work we’ve seen outside of her assault and kidnap storyline. We saw more fire and passion out of Benson than we have in weeks, which is much-needed after her run of trying to be a Kragen clone. Her handling of the Benson/Jimmy Mac scenes were also fantastic as she never let herself nor Baldwin ham it up — they kept it tight, intense and focused. Well done Mariska, here’s hoping for more directorial work on this show from you.
The poor dialogue and the overly ambitious social agenda of “Criminal Stories” was a little too much for the acting and direction to overcome. It’s really a shame because the potential here was immense. Yet, if there is a positive takeaway, it’s that Mariska Hargitay not only carry the show with her acting, but now she can with her directing too.