Since I’m typing my acting notes from the cusp of the Fifties and Sixties, I’m extra-aware of what goes on even in television series acting. I’m particularly intrigued by Chris Meloni. (Who isn’t?) Sure, he’s sexy and built and all that, but there’s more happening. Whatever it is, the vibe is intimacy but, even more than that, mental and emotional ambiguity. Not wimpy wondering, but truly deep moral dilemmas. Whether it is in his two key roles in “Oz” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” -- both of which are powerfully written about intense subjects -- or whether it is in his acting skills, the effect is worth reflection. I may come back to this subject later. I have MANY "L&O" discs to watch plus it would be good to look at some of his comedies.
The intimacy and the ambiguity go together. Meloni “does” the intimacy by using steady eye contact and an easy physical contact. When he holds a freaked-out young suspect on the ground, he leans his cheek against the top of her head as though she were his child to comfort. When he is in his female partner’s kitchen early in the morning to protect her on the way to work, he takes a swig of her orange juice without asking and then she drinks from it without caring that he’d had a sip. But they make it clear this is not a sexual relationship: it is the kind of intimacy people develop when working together, knowing each other and trusting their actions. They do not caress each other -- but they might lean shoulders together. He leans closely over her when she’s at the computer. The character does the same thing with his children more than with his wife. Some people think this “chemistry” is the reason people watch this series.
I suspect Meloni’s past work as a physical trainer enters into this. He has a high awareness of other people’s bodies but is comfortable with touching, holding. In one sequence he is playing with his young son on playground scaffolding and knows just how to safely hold him to let the boy exert himself without restriction. (He has his hands as a support girdle around and under the boy’s bony pelvis.) Part of his close attention to bodies is in the way that a personal trainer might objectively but protectively watch and partly he’s watching emotions and intentions as signaled by muscles.
In fact, protectiveness is a big part of the vibe and a contributor to the sense of intimacy. It reminds me of the old Fifties Westerns I loved so much: Marshall Dillon’s close attention as a protector, sizing things up, predicting. Meloni has also worked as a bouncer, where one learns -- in the same way as a law officer -- to use one’s body as a shield. You see him step between people who are moving towards violence to separate them but also to obscure sight-lines, to provide cover from eyes. Eyes are “beams” of attention to him and he is conscious of them all the time, as though they were muscles. BUT he also has a strong sense of ego and strategy: he knows how to persuade, to manipulate, to keep the peace. These are the character’s qualities, but plainly he has them in real life as well.
At first I thought that “Law & Order: SVU” was earlier than “Oz,” because the prison series was SO intense and he came off as an actor who had BIG chops. (ahem). “Law & Order” is much more schtick, like Belzer’s snapshots. Sometimes Meloni is making a weak script work. His sense of humor is much like Robson Green’s. Most times his straight-lines face (straight-across brow and mouth, severe nose, more Roman than Italian) expresses inner conflict that urges the viewer to “think about it!” He works his eyebrows quite a bit -- sometimes flirty, sometimes ironic -- but it is the tiny resettlings of his mouth that really work in the close-camera context. He never seems dissolute -- which is unusual in the edgy detective genre -- but he DOES seem like a badass who will go outside the rules if it seems justified to him -- the question is whether that justification will be moral in your terms or his, which was also the question on the old Westerns. Big powerful men don’t have to draw guns or slug people, but they could and if they did, it would be effective.
In both prison scenarios and the street contexts -- few emergency responses are as intense as sex-related crimes -- are ambiguous. We don’t quite know what to do with them, how to think about them, where the lines are drawn. Meloni’s counterpart in “Oz,” Lee Torgesen, was effective in both “Oz” and “Generation Kill” because he, too, can convey ambivalence, inner conflict. I suppose it’s ridiculous to think of these specific characters or any actors doing something with post-military S/M that addresses PTSD. I know there is a literature. The public might be ready for it, but not the commercial world. I wonder if they are aware of Michael Boyd’s stage version of “Anywhere, Anywhere,” taken from Tim Barrus’ novel. Not S/M but about two veterans, one disabled.
Another place this kind of intelligent and powerful acting can work is in something like “Welcome to Sarajevo” or “The Constant Gardener” that addresses planetary agony. The trouble with this context is that it can be dangerous for actors and it disrupts their family life. It’s location movies -- not series TV. In a series role Meloni can be home for supper while his own kids grew up.
On the other hand, the stories of the lost children in the ghettos and interstices of every city, including America, have not been told. Doing sexwork to survive, already traumatized and twisted by families so dysfunctional they hardly count, these human vectors and child martyrs are still stubbornly rendered invisible by stigma and by realistic fear of the kind of damage they can do in their feral thrashing. Chris Meloni, given a decent script, would be up to it. Why mess around with vampires? I read that his personal values include the welfare of LGBTQ people and it’s clear that he can work with children. HBO is ready for a little do-goodery. They shouldn’t be held back by prudery. What’s missing is a Tom Fontana, a David Simon, an Ed Burns. These guys are all about fifty years old -- they should be at a place where they don’t have to fool around or please fools anymore.