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Elliot Stabler Is Back: What Chris Meloni's Return Means for the 'Law & Order' Universe

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Elliot Stabler is back! That’s right, after nearly a decade, ET has learned that Christopher Meloni will reprise the Emmy-nominated character he originated on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in an all-new series on NBC. While it’s still early in the development process, with only a few confirmed details, ET takes a deep dive into Stabler’s past and what that may mean for his future. 

Where Stabler’s Story Left Off

Det. Elliot Stabler was one of the two lead characters on the NBC police procedural’s first 12 seasons alongside Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay). A former Marine, he had no problem charging headfirst into investigations and often took his aggression out on suspects, which would put him at odds with his team and the rotating Assistant District Attorneys assigned to his cases. 

While Benson is his main, longtime partner, Stabler previously worked with Jo Marlowe (Sharon Stone) and is later temporarily assigned to Dani Beck (Connie Nielsen) while Benson goes undercover in Oregon. 

Law and Order Special Victims Unit
Chris Haston/NBC

During his time on the force, Stabler’s family problems spilled over into the squad room. His marriage to Kathy (Isabel Gillies) was often challenged by Stabler’s inability to leave work behind at the end of the day, while his second oldest daughter, Kathleen (Alison Siko), often got into trouble with the law.

And then there was Stabler’s bipolar mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, who appeared in one of producer Neal Baer’s favorite SVU episodes of all time. “[The episode] really gets into Stabler's fears about who he is, who his parents [are], where he's from, how he's tried to overcome and maybe ignore or be in denial about his roots,” Baer told ET of the season 3 episode, “Swing.” “We see a side of him that he's tried to keep repressed, which I love.”

Over time he learned to deal with his anger, leading him to reconcile with his estranged wife. But that didn’t erase his reputation as a notorious hothead nor the fact that he had five career “good shootings” before his sixth put him on administrative leave. 

NBC

In the season 12 finale, Stabler is last seen standing over a young rape victim whom he shot and killed after she attempted to open fire in the squad room. Despite being reassured that he would be cleared, the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau decided to review his “entire jacket.” It’s revealed in the season 13 premiere that he abruptly retired from the force, leaving Benson to carry on without him. 

Off-screen, Stabler’s unexpected exit was reportedly due to the fact that the actor’s contract negotiations fell through, with Meloni not returning. But as he told ET, he was open to coming back. 

“I have always said I would be open to it. [The] circumstances have to be right, that is all,” Meloni said in 2017, leaving fans hopeful he would eventually return. “It is lovely [to still see the fan support]... I knew how important it was to people, how much it meant to people. Twelve years with your partner-in-crime, it is a long time.”

What the New Series Is About 

Matt Olmstead is said to be the writer and showrunner of the series created by Law & Order mastermind Dick Wolf. Olmstead has previously worked on NYPD Blue as well as Wolf’s Chicago franchise as executive producer on Chicago Fire and co-creator of Chicago P.D. So he has a solid understanding of the extended L&O universe.  

Not many details have been announced, but ET has learned that the show will follow Stabler as he returns to the force to head up the Organized Crime Division of the NYPD. 

How It Fits Into the ‘L&O’ Universe

Over the course of all the L&O series, audiences have seen several of the NYPD’s major services, including the Special Victims Unit, Crime Scene Unit, Homicide Squad, Special Frauds Unit and the Narcotics Division. The latter falls under the Organized Crime Control Bureau, which is most likely Stabler’s new division. 

Since the premiere of SVU, there has been a lot of overlap between the Narcotics Division and Stabler’s former unit. Both Brian Cassidy (Dean Winters) and Odafin "Fin" Tutuola (Ice-T) transferred from Narcotics as detectives while other officers have made brief appearances for one-off cases. 

In the years since Stabler’s departure, Cassidy has retired from the force and is now an investigator for the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. Tutuola, meanwhile, is still very much active, having been promoted to sergeant and the second-in-command of the Special Victims Unit behind Benson, who is now Captain.

Law and Order SVU
Will Hart/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Why His Return Matters

There is no bigger character to return to the franchise than Stabler. His partnership with Benson was pivotal to the SVU series and marked the first major change up of the show’s lead two lead characters. 

While Benson has since moved on, and the unit has welcomed plenty of new faces, including Det. Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish), who was Stabler’s direct replacement at the time, there’s no doubt that Stabler’s return would shake things up for her. 

Since the two famously never got an on-screen goodbye or any proper closure, there undoubtedly would be tons of fireworks the first time the two come face to face again.  

Who Stabler Could Reunite With

The most likely person Stabler will reconnect with first is Benson. As stated above, there’s too much baggage and time lost between the two -- and the fans won’t stop demanding until the two share the screen. 

Given that Wolf loves crossovers within the L&O universe, Stabler’s return would likely mean that the Organized Crime Division and the Special Victims Unit will work together, especially on a narcotics case, meaning that Stabler would also have a chance to also reunite with Tutuola. 

But don’t be surprised if there’s some overlap with Chicago P.D., which is a world that Olmstead knows very well as its co-creator and would give him a chance to work with his old cast and crew. 

It should also be noted that SVU’s current showrunner Warren Leight revealed that after production shut down early, they were unable to complete the remaining episodes of season 21, which included “the return of two prominent characters from earlier seasons.”

Given that the NBC announcement comes as the show plans to close out with 20 episodes instead of 24, it’s possible Stabler was going to make a surprise appearance -- and set up a spinoff for the next TV season.   

When Will the Series Debut

Even though Law & Order: Stabler’s Back has only just been announced, there are a few things to take into consideration: the episode order and TV’s current shuffling of programs amid the coronavirus outbreak, which has led to the death of one SVU crew member. The latter has also resulted in production shutdowns all across the country and most notably in New York City, where the upcoming series is set. Given that, it’s unlikely the show will be ready in time for a Fall 2020 debut. 

That’s where the 13-episode order may also signify that the series is intended to be a mid-season debut, premiering sometime in early 2021. That would give it time to get into production, but could also allow Meloni to reprise his role with a guest appearance on SVU season 22 (or on one of the other Dick Wolf series) and help set up his new position within the TV universe.    

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