Monday, October 14, 2013

"A Shot To The Gut"

I did not see it coming.

How could I?  He did not even appear in the episode.  (I don’t think.  I always switch away during commercials, and he may have cameoed in before I switched back for the re-start.  But I’m pretty sure he didn’t.)

It was a so-so episode.  Olivia had moved in with a disgraced cop boyfriend, who, to redeem himself, had gone undercover to procure evidence on some dirty cops.  But it did not matter that it was hackneyed and melodramatic.  With SVU, the stories, for me, were always secondary.  It was the characters.  This is probably why I could never get into CSI’s and the NCIS’s – the characters (to me) are comparative stick figures, unlike the intense and passionate, “Flaws ‘R Us” pairing of Elliot and Olivia.  And the rest of the squad room as well.  They're just a bunch of cracked teacups.  (Alternate metaphor:  Broken cookies.) 

(By contrast – I know I’m jumping around here, I had coffee yesterday – the original Law & Order gripped me less with its characters – with the exception of Lenny Briscoe – than its compelling, often nationally important, moral conflicts, played out dramatically before a jury.  The most contentious dilemma on SVU is, “Just because you’re a prostitute doesn’t mean you can’t be raped.”)

The episode had four endings, buttoning the main story and its satellite subplots.  It was in the course of one of the third ending from the last that the bombshell exploded.  It was almost a throwaway.  Which made its impact all the more powerful.

Five words.

Five words that made me clasp my hand to my mouth, stifling a sharp but noticeable gasp.

The five words?

“Munch put in his papers.”

(For those who don’t follow fake police dramas, “putting in your papers” means you got the paperwork started on your decision to retire.  I picked up this insider lingo from a 2004 Law & Order episode in which Lenny announced to his partner he was putting in his papers.  (Jerry Orbach, who played Lenny on L & O for over a decade, subsequently died shortly thereafter.)  But that was the character calling it quits in person.  This announcement was delivered eerily by the Captain.  And it came entirely out of the blue.

Detective Sergeant John Munch, played by Richard Belzer, was a cantankerous, sixties-steeped, conspiracy theorist Grumpelskiltskin who had a string of ex-wives (one played by Carol Kane who was even nuttier than he was), always wore declaratively dark clothing and never lost an opportunity to proclaim that the government was too deeply into our business.  Sometimes, he was funny, in an insistently sardonic way.  But mostly he was the cousin who comes to Thanksgiving Dinner and does twenty minutes on how horrendously they treat the turkeys.

(An Irrelevant Though Not Entirely Uninteresting Side Note – Our inexhaustible research reveals that the Munch character, always – unlike the James Bonds and the Tarzans – played by the same actor, Richard Belzer, appeared in ten different series, from Homicide:  Life on the Street to Arrested Development.  Nobody has played the same character in so many different venues.  And very few have taken them from drama over to comedy.  We now return to you our regularly scheduled blog post.)

It is not a question of whether I liked the Munch character.  I just expected him to be there.  John Munch was a series mainstay, a reliable fixture in the SVU ecosystem.  The man always injected a unique perspective on the proceedings, adding a distinctive color to the conversation, even if it was invariably black. 

I expected Munch to pop up in the Precinct Room.  And then, suddenly,

He put in his papers.

What can I tell you, it was a shock.  And, though it embarrasses me to the point of “Really?” to say so because he’s a fictional character and not someone actually in my life,

It hurts.

What there a pressing need to dump him?  SVU’s in its fourteenth season.  How long has it got left?  Munch didn’t have to go early.  They could have all gone out together, hugging and sniffling, like on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, though on this show, they would certainly have done neither.  The precinct would more likely have been leveled by a renegade “drone”, with a dying Munch, croaking before he succumbs,

“I told you they were after us.”

I felt a palpable loss.  A good friend was “leaving the building.”  I could see Olivia on the verge of tearing up.  But then the Captain consoled her saying, “Liv, it’s okay.  Nothing changes.  Except was has to.”

I am not sure I know what that means.  But I do know it didn’t help.

You know what did?  The next morning, my daughter Anna called, to inform me of startling news she had witnessed the night before.  Before she could tell me, I said,

“I know.  Munch put in his papers.”

And we commiserated.

She felt exactly the same way.

So long, Munch.

You were annoying, but we’ll miss you.

2 comments: said...

His character was part of one of the great ensembles in tv drama history. Homicide: Life On The Street, although it was buried on Friday nights, was an excellent show. Smart writing and acting were the order of the day.
I guess Munch gets his sendoff Wednesday night.

Rebecca said...

I found that side note fascinating, I can hardly believe that was possible. And I think it's wonderful, even if I never saw the character.but then, I don't watch any television these days. Rarely any movies, either. I don't know why, I used to enjoy both very much. Which brings me to the reason for this comment.

Decades ago, when I was in a relatively brief soap opera watching stage, a female character was killed off...probably due to some contractual reason. Still, we all know there are ways of writing out a character while leaving a believable route to return. I suppose management believed this particular character was not highly valued by the audience.

Surely though, even in the very early eighties, they measured these sort of things! Anyway, mannn, were they ever wrong. I well remember the shock, it was a sudden death in an elevator, of all things. And I was surprised at how upset I felt about a fictional character. And I certainly must not have been the only one.

Of course, there was no way to bring the character back from the dead. But they brought the actress back. Well, we liked the actress, of course. And she was the one who had made the character so compelling.

But now it was weird, seeing her as someone else. It just didn't work. I'm pretty sure she ended up leaving again. It was just an example of some things you just can't come back from. Fortunately, putting in your papers isn't one of them. Still, I hope the actor is in very good health.