Eight dramas have carried the "Law & Order" brand. But there's only one Elliot Stabler.
The hotheaded detective from "Special Victims Unit" returned this month to headline his own series, "Law & Order: Organized Crime," which drew more than 7.5 million viewers on opening night. Other than "The Equalizer," which launched right after the Super Bowl, that's the best series debut among adults 18-49 this season.
The "SVU" episode that led into the premiere drew that drama's best numbers since 2016, thanks in no small part to the long-anticipated reunion between Stabler and his former partner Olivia Benson, portrayed by Mariska Hargitay for more than two decades.
"It's all pretty overwhelming," said Christopher Meloni, who returns to the role of Stabler after a 10-year absence. "I think Mariska was expecting it more than I was since she's been in the 'Law & Order' stew continuously. I was not prepared. It's wonderful."
Meloni, who turned 60 this month, seemingly left the series in 2011 due to contract disputes. But it's also fair to assume that he was searching for meatier work.
In the "Law & Order" world, character usually takes a back seat to procedure. Hargitay is the only actor in the franchise's 31-year history to ever win an Emmy for playing a series regular.
But in just the first two episodes of "Organized Crime," which airs Thursday nights on KARE, Ch. 11, you can see how Meloni got lured back in.
This time around, the writers are more interested in getting inside the protagonist's head, diving deep into his response to losing his wife in a car explosion set off by a gangster, played by Dylan McDermott.
In the first two episodes we see our hero almost punch a suspect in the face, suffer nightmares, get assaulted and shed tears, all while trying to help assemble a new team of detectives that colors outside the lines.
"Did you ever think you'd see Stabler cry?" franchise mastermind Dick Wolf told TV critics in a virtual press conference with Meloni and showrunner Ilene Chaiken. "I think Chris is becoming one of the most complex television stars in the history of the medium because you don't know what he's going to do now. He's a little more unpredictable."
Instead of the usual case-of-the-week format, Wolf is planning three eight-episode arcs that will borrow from "The Godfather," "American Gangster" and "Scarface," with dynamic villains that would make James Bond think seriously about retirement.
"This gives Chris a constant source of energy and outrage. He has to find a different way of pursing criminals than we have done before," Wolf said. "We're shooting for bigger game."
Meloni admits that he's only watched about 10 minutes of "SVU" since leaving in 2011 ("I'm not much of a TV watcher, so it's nothing personal"), but he never forgot what makes Stabler tick.
"Injustice makes his head explode," said Meloni, who convinced Wolf back in 1999 to give Stabler four kids instead of three, just so the character would face even more pressure. "But he was always one step removed. Now how does he attend to his own injustice? How do you carry on with so much grief?"
Stabler's challenge stands in sharp contrast to Meloni's approach to his homecoming.
"I feel a lot less pressure than I did the first time around," he said. "I'm a lot freer to appreciate everything. It's a nice journey."