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?”


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’.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.