Now, Law & Order: SVU understands the joys of ambiguity. One of this season's best episodes was a thistle of a story involving a professor (The O.C.'s Billy Campbell) accused of raping his student (Shannyn Sossamon), each of whom lost credibility, gained it, and then completely mangled it. (From Campbell to Martin Short as a baleful psychic, SVU is a prime showcase for pigeonholed actors trying to stretch.) The case galvanized the lead detectives: The prof's nice-guy studliness appealed to macho family man Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni); the girl found an advocate in Stabler's partner, Olivia Benson (Golden Globe winner Mariska Hargitay), herself the child of rape. The episode epitomizes SVU's niche: allowing a mystery to shed a glimmer of light on its detectives' inner lives.
A glimmer, please. The divorce arc of Meloni's Stabler is turning him into a distracting blow-stack. In the March 1 episode, unstable Stabler spent an hour spitting and screaming at Matthew Modine's killer. (Actually uttered: ''I should put you in pigtails, you little bitch.'') He's becoming less Popeye Doyle and more Bluto.