Title: Payback (Season 1, Episode 1)
Uncomfortable Synopsis: The murder of a taxi driver cuts a too close for a SVU detective.
Memorable Line: “Shut up, John!”
Plot: “Sex Crimes” detectives Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler are called to the scene of an accident where a tax driver named Victor Spicer was stabbed to death. Oh, he’s also missing a certain piece of his anatomy.
Back at the Squad room, we’re introduced to the other lead detectives in the unit and their captain, Donald Cragen. Backing up Benson and Stabler are Detectives Brian Cassidy and Monique Jeffries. Offering acerbic commentary is Detective John Munch, late of Baltimore’s Homicide Unit (and the NBC television series “Homicide: Life on the Street.”) Within a few seconds of appearing, Munch mentions his time in that other city.
Detective Ken Briscoe tells Cragen another precinct needs a Sex Crimes detective because a guy was caught molesting a dead body. Cassidy is given the case, while Munch is order to assist Benson and Stabler, who is due in court on another case.
In Part 27, Stabler testifies that two women stopped him and told him the defendant flashed them in the park. Stabler knows the women well because they’re neighbors. The defense lawyer explains that the SVU is a volunteer assignment and asks him why he signed up. Stabler explains that he thinks sex should “one of the best parts of life, not the worst.” He then goads the defendant into dropping trou in the court room.
Back at the squad room, Benson has learned Spicer is in Riker’s Island Prison; still alive. The man in the cab is unidentified. Using an actual magnifying glass, Cragen discovers the taxi license has been manipulated.
At Riker’s, Benson and Stabler interview the real Victor Spicer. In a fairly over-acted performance, Spicer reveals he sold the license to a guy for $100. The guy had a kid with him. Unfortunately, Spicer does not know the guy’s name, but he leads them to a cab diner.
At the diner, a waitress recognizes both Victors, but offers little else. Another cabbie tells the detectives that the fake Victor’s real name was Stephen. Seems his wife was pregnant with another child.
Meanwhile, Munch discovers the dispatch office got a call asking if Victor Spicer was working the night before.
Benson and Stabler proceed to the home of Stephen Panachek. Stabler introduces himself and and Benson to Panachek’s wife … but she immediately susses out that Stephen is dead. While Stabler plays with the boy, Benson interviews the now widowed Ms. Panachek. She learns Stephen was Czech, but he never applied for residency.
Forensics found a fingernail with red nail polish on it, apparently scuppering Stabler’s “gay theory.” In response, he says, “Could’ve been a he-she.”
Benson and Stabler interview an artist caught with Spicer during a prostitution dragnet. The artist alibis her, but tells Benson she should give her a call. Oh, did I mention the artist’s wife is a “bisexual, but she prefers women?”
At the squad room, Munch recalls his time in Baltimore. Benson walks in with a report on Panachek. Interpol turns up hit n his prints. He wasn’t Stephen Panachek, but a Stephan Tanzic, a Serb wanted for war crimes. He commanded an ethnic cleansing unit indicted in European courts for raping 67 women. For some reason, Stabler and Cragen think this will be a problem for Benson.
At the Medical Examiner, ME Rodgers tells the detectives that there were two knives and, therefore, two killers.
Benson and Stabler visit the widow Panachek again. She admits to knowing about her late husband’s problems back in Serbia. Benson goes a little cuckoo-bananas on her. “That’s the dumbest move I’ve ever seen you make,” says Stabler as they exit the building. He also reminds her that “we don’t get to pic the vic.”
They find their way to Ileana Jashari, one of Tanzic’s victims. As she’s blind and quite fragile, they take her off the suspect list. Benson tells her that he’s dead. It seems to help her a little.
I know you know why Benson is all bent out of shape, but let’s play along.
They visit the husband of Marta Stevens, an architect whose son was obviously fathered by Tanzic. It gives Benson more pause, but she makes her way to Marta’s office. Once there, she questions her about the murder. Her alibi is rather shaky. She admits that Tanzic was her neighbor in Bosnia growing up and picked her out from the crowd. After describing his brutality, she says “I’m not sorry he’s dead.”
Stabler and his wife are at a parent-teacher conference when Benson calls him about the Marta interview.
Benson then has dinner with her mother. She tells her that she wishes she had been in the cab to kill Tanzic. Oh, we also learn Oliva’s dark past. While she is the product of a rape, her mother feels the bloodlust is too much and that she should avoid arresting Marta.
The next morning, Benson tells Stabler that she doesn’t think Marta killed him. Heh. While he still thinks she’s a suspect, they go looking for the other killer. The trail leads to the owner of a restaurant. She’s happy to hear that Tanzic is dead, but gives an alibi similar to Marta’s. Oh, they spot that her hand is bandaged. They ask if she knows an Marta and the owner clearly does, even though she denies it.
Stabler moves to arrest them. Benson gives her some legal advice. At the restaurant, the owner sees Mara and stabs herself. She asks Benson not to help her and whispers “I just want to be with my family” into Stabler’s ear. Marta confesses to Assistant District Attorney Abbie Carmicheal. She pleads Marta out to Manslaughter 2 and, probably, 18 months in a psychiatric facility.
Of course, Cragen is pissed at Stabler and Benson for fixing the closure this way as intent was obvious from the M.E.’s report. “You just used your get out of jail free card, Olivia,” he says. “There’s only one in the pack.”
Why it is one of the worst: The Bottom Five was suggested during the Top Five selection process and the pilot immediately popped to mind. While some my think its unfair to take the first episode to task, it’s indicative of what you’ll see in the rest of the top five; a failure of format.
The first failure is the opening tease. Most of the first season episodes begin with Benson and Stabler dealing with detectives in other precincts who do not understand the “Sex Crimes” unit. In each case, they get skeptical looks from the other officers who just don’t understand how to deal with “Special Victims.” The show eventually retires the term “Sex Crimes” entirely, except for Casey Novak’s baseball jersey glimpsed in a season six episode.
Another failure are the odd callbacks to the mothership show. The murder takes place in the 27th precinct. Cragen used to be commanding officer there and he namechecks his replacement, Anita Van Buren, within a few seconds of appearing on screen. We also see M.E. Hendricks (who, to be fair, appeared on all the New York-based “Law & Order” shows.) and ADA Abbie Carmichael. There’s even a mention of District Attorney Adam Schiff, which tells you just how old this episode is. Also, that Ken Briscoe I mentioned up top is meant to be a nephew of the mothership’s Detective Lenny Briscoe. He’s played by Chris Orbach, the son of actor Jerry Orbach.
Shockingly, Orbach, as Lenny, would not appear on “SVU” for at least six episodes.
The problem with all of these callbacks is that they get in the way of introducing the new cast and the altered premise. They too often remind you that this is “Law & Order.” To be fair, this spinoff was a novelty at the time, but I find every mention of the older show more distracting than the signature “chung chung” sound effect.
In many ways, “Payback” is an episode of “Law & Order” invaded by another show called “Sex Crimes” and spackled with a dose of “Homicide.” The episode follows the case as any episode of the mothership would, but it suddenly rams this personal aspect when Stabler and Cragen discuss Benson’s sensitivity (or lack thereof) to rapists. While that personal involvement will become a trademark of the show, it rests uneasily in the format in this case. It also comes late in the episode, so it doesn’t receive the sort of development it might get in later seasons. In fact, Benson’s personal history comes into play many times over the years and only feels this awkward when they introduce her brother.
This episode also features that court case scene meant to introduce Stabler to the audience. the subsequent four episodes have similiar scenes each focusing on a different member of the squad. It’s dropped after that, but it does seem like an attempt to make the show less like the mothership.
In fact, all the early episodes use this structure: Benson and Stabler get called out to a crime scene, credits, the squad discusses the fresh case, court room scene, the investigation, personal involvement, closure. In the first six episodes, it’s pretty stiff, but the show eventually loosens up. In the pilot, though, it leads to an unsatisfying pace as the plot is dominated by dead-end leads with the real murders only coming to light in the last 15 minutes. You’ll note I don’t even bother naming the second murderer because she’s barely a character at all.
Squeezed into all of this is John Munch. Actually, make that all of Munch’s more irritating traits. He rants about the Kennedy assassination and his ex-wives. He’s also placed in the role of comic relief. The Munch of “Homicide” and the Munch we’ve come to love are both fairly different from the character on display here. All of his scenes in the pilot are about “Homicide” and reminding you that he came from that series. He’s also much louder than the character of subsequent seasons. Richard Belzer is left to play him as a caricature of the original Munch. Thankfully, he’s had 12 years to reel the character back.
Interesting aside: John Munch is based on real a real Baltimore detective named Jay Landsman. Landsman would go on to play himself in David Simon’s “The Corner” and Lieutenant Dennis Melo on “The Wire.” That show also features a separate character named Jay Landsman.
So, is it really fair to pan this episode in the end? I think so. While it launched the long running series, it also fails to really be indicative of what the show actually became. Compare this to the first episode of the mothership, which is pretty much the exact same format, pace, and tone that you could see in an episode from 5, 10, 15, and 20 years later. SVU evolved over time.
The “Special Victims Unit” people really love didn’t really click until the third year. At that point it had all of its key characters and the writers learned to balance the “Law & Order” format with the “Sex Crimes” format. Also, John Munch became a lovable curmudgeon.
One last note. The rest of the bottom five all feature one or more of the following things: flashbacks, an Internal Affairs Bureau investigation, a countdown clock. The pilot, interestingly enough, contains none of these.
Lessons learned: Don’t call it “Sex Crimes.” Don’t ask Munch about his wives, Baltimore, or the Kennedy Assisination.