It’s built on clichés, unspeakable topics and implausible twists, yet Law & Order: SVU has outlived its siblings. Here’s why this police procedural reigns supreme
IT BEGINS, ALWAYS, with a sound. DUN-DUN (or chung-chung, or even doinkdoink, depending on phonetic preference). A sound that, along with the authoritative voiceover proclaiming, “In the criminal justice system, sexual-based offences are considered especially heinous…”, is the rigorously adheredto opening gambit of a show that, while being dismissed as pulpy, remains one of the longestrunning and most successful procedural dramas in television. After 17 years, with countless “I’m sorry, what?!” plotlines and most of its police procedural kin — CSI, NYPD Blue, Cold Case, all the other Law & Orders — lying cold in the telly graveyard, what is it about SVU?
SVU APPEARED IN 1999, EXPELLED FROM the brain of the creator of the original Law & Order, Dick Wolf. Wolf, an ex-staff writer on
Hill Street Blues, had gone to NBC bosses nine years before with a simple premise: an episodic drama series in which the first half focuses on the investigation of a crime, the second half the prosecution. SVU, the first spin-off from the main show, zeroed in on sex crimes (its original title) and premiered with a solid 18 million viewers.
Crucially, while the individual story explored is new each week — and often based on real-life cases like the Cleveland house of horrors and Rihanna’s assault (though their version killed off a singer whose likeness is purely coincidental) — the storytelling arc remains consistent: the crime, the investigation on the wrong track, the investigation on the right track, and resolution (spoiler: they’re guilty).
The other constant: the cast. They provide a perspective; the perp always viewed through them. In this case, the eyes belong to Sergeant Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), a tough-astacks woman in a man’s world investigating — primarily — crimes against women (backstory: she’s a product of rape herself ). She’s the moral compass who — comfortingly, but yes, in a stretch of credulity — believes the victim without question and fights, often at personal cost, for what is just. Alongside original partner Elliot Stabler
(Oz’s Christopher Meloni) and now DA Rafael Barba (Raúl Esparza) and Det. Fin Tutuola (Ice-t, who has some of the best lines including: “They glued pubic hair to his face and told him he was the wolfman!”), Benson is the anchor of this dysfunctional yet familiar family. They fight (Benson and Barba), bond (Benson and Stabler) and protect (Tutuola and Benson). They make the shadowy streets of New York and brown walls of the squad room feel like home. One we’re welcomed into every week. In there it’s warm. It smells of burned coffee.
Outside of the core cast, the guest stars are impressive — Bradley Cooper, Whoopi Goldberg, Zoe Saldana, Patricia Arquette, Chloë Sevigny, Sharon Stone and Norman Reedus have appeared, as has Martin Short as a demented killer psychic; Sarah Hyland as a demented killer teenager, and Robin Williams as a demented audio engineer (more terrifying than it may initially sound).
NATURALLY (AND NARRATIVELY), TROPES are relied upon, offering a strange security in their recognition. The squabbling couple — he’s balding — return to a blood-stained bedroom, the kindly counsellor takes too close an interest
in an artistic but troubled student, the pinkcheeked Midwestern girl tiptoes into a frat party.
While SVU prods our primal fears, and though not every episode sees a pounded gavel and declaration of, “Guilty!”, it simultaneously offers reassurance that if the worst happens, it will be okay in the end. The verdict is delivered and the world, which 50 minutes ago had gone wonky, is righted.
Law & Order, and star Sam Waterston’s ever-expanding eyebrows, left this world in 2010 having tied the record for longest-running live-action drama serial with Gunsmoke, but SVU shows no sign of following it to the knackers’ yard. In fact, it’s on season 18, just three away from breaking that record. Be it that it feels like a pair of warm slippers. Be it Ice-t’s zingers. Be it the dun-dun/the chung-chung/the doink-doink. Maybe the heart does just want what the heart wants. As Amanda Palmer sang, “Who needs love when there’s Law & Order?”
LAW & ORDER: SVU SEASONS 11 AND 12 ARE OUT ON 16 JANUARY ON DVD
Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) tackles a prostitution ring in Season 16’s ‘Girls Disappeared’.
Benson, Billy Tripley (Will Keenan) and Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) face the press in Season 5’s ‘Sick’.
Season 17’s ‘Devil’s Dissection’ sees Benson and Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish) face shocking truths close to home.
Fin Tutuola (Ice-t) gets ready to deliver another zinger in Season 12’s ‘Wet’.