Elliot Stabler was a beloved fixture on Law & Order: SVU for 12 seasons in as many years. With the release of the show’s 24th season in 2022, many fans of his character are wondering why Elliot Stabler isn’t in SVU anymore and why Christopher Meloni left in the first place—and whether he’ll team up with his partner Olivia Benson (Marishka Hargitay) again.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit—also known as SVU—is a spinoff of Dick Wolf’s Law & Order show but is arguably more popular thanks to the dynamic Stabler/Benson duo, who debuted on-screen in 1999. As the introduction to the show goes: “In the criminal justice system, sexually-based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit.” Detective Benson and Detective Stabler were perfectly complementary to each other, representing the various emotions the public feels when horrific crimes happen. In an interview with TV Week in 2007, SVU co-executive producer Neal Baer explained that “Mariska is the empathetic, passionate voice for these victims, and Chris [Meloni] is the rage we feel, the ‘How can this happen?’ feeling. They both represent the feelings that we feel simultaneously when we hear about these cases. That’s why they work so well together.” Despite his character’s popularity, Meloni exited the show abruptly in 2011. Read on to find out why.
Why isn’t Elliot Stabler in SVU?
Christopher Meloni left SVU in 2011 following an alleged salary dispute. Deadline reported at the time that the show’s network NBC couldn’t agree to a new deal. Meloni confirmed he had no regrets about leaving the show during an interview on Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen in 2017. “Not for a day,” he replied when Cohen asked him if he regretted leaving. “How did you know it was time to leave?” Meloni shrugged and chuckled, “when negotiations broke down.” Both Meloni and Hargitay reportedly earned $400,000 per episode while on the show and each episode takes a little over a week to shoot. While that sounds like a lot (more than $2,300 an hour), the cast and crew of SVU work exceptionally long and arduous hours. “You’re doing these scripts back-to-back, and it would take eight days to do an episode,” Meloni described to NPR in 2019. “You start on Monday, and the following Wednesday you finish. And Thursday, you have your new script. And this continues for nine months. And after about four or five months, you’re more liquid than solid.”
Despite being confident Meloni and NBC could come to an agreement, the network and the actor couldn’t see eye-to-eye and Meloni made a swift exit. In an interview with Men’s Health, Meloni spoke about how he tried to negotiate fewer episodes. “My thought was: Instead of 22 episodes, bring me back for nine episodes, or bring me back for 18 episodes. They literally came to me on a Thursday night and said, ‘This is the deal. We want the answer by tomorrow. It’s our way or no way,’” he said. Meloni responded by telling the creators of SVU, “I don’t want to fuck around with you guys. This is what I want. If you can’t do it, that’s fine. Let’s figure out my exit.” His departure from the show had nothing to do with the cast or crew themselves, but rather he explained it was time for a new challenge. “How I left was a different issue and had nothing to do with the Law & Order people, the SVU people or with Dick Wolf,” he told the New York Post in July 2020. “I left with zero animosity, but I did leave clearly and open-eyed in going forward and finding new adventures. I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do, keep moving forward’,” he continued. “I had done the Law & Order way of storytelling, which they do really well, and I was interested in telling stories from a different angle—whether comedic or inhabiting a new world or doing it on different platforms.” Meloni’s final season on SVU, season 12 ended with Stabler coming to terms with fatally shooting a young woman who’d opened fire on the precinct, but by the time Benson returned to her desk for season 13, she was blindsided by the news her partner had retired, which came as a shock to fans and it was an ending deemed “unsatisfying” by Meloni in an interview with the New York Post.
Why did Christopher Meloni come back to Law & Order?
In 2021, Christopher Meloni reprised his role as Elliot Stabler in a new Law & Order spinoff that varied greatly from what he was doing as part of the Special Victims Unit. The synopsis of the show described Stabler returning to the NYPD “to battle organized crime after a devastating personal loss,” per NBC. “However, the city and police department have changed dramatically in the decade he’s been away, and he must adapt to a criminal justice system in the midst of its own moment of reckoning.” But just because he’s on a different show doesn’t mean Stabler won’t ever see his partner Detective Benson again.
In an interview with the Post, Meloni said the duo is “inextricably linked” and that there will be crossovers between SVU and Organized Crime. They went through a lot together after all and they have unfinished business between them. “Benson and Stabler are inextricably linked, locked and connected,” he said. “I think there is truly and deeply a worthwhile, inherent drama in exploring that relationship and the complexity of how Stabler left—the unresolved emotions both characters feel and how the fans feel.”
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For more about Law & Order, check out True Stories of Law & Order: The Real Crimes Behind the Best Episodes of the Hit TV Show by Kevin Dwyer and Juré Fiorillo. The book covers 25 cases from Law & Order and its spinoffs’ most popular episodes, from how a woman’s repressed memory led to solving a 30-year-old cold case to the high-profile investigation of millionaire Robert Durst. Like Law & Order fans know, the crime is just the start and the real information can come from the trial and controversial verdicts. If you love Law & Order, you’ll be obsessed with these “true crimes that are often stranger and more chilling than fiction.”
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