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The Hollywood Insider Law & Order SVU Analysis

Photo: ‘Law & Order Special Victims Unit’

As we come into the new year, the new Season of the longest-running TV drama, ‘Law & Order Special Victims Unit (more popularly known as ‘SVU’), continues its 23rd Season capturing the attention of more than 5 million viewers. This spin-off of ‘Law & Order’ has outlasted every other addition to the franchise, including ‘Law & Order LA’, ‘Law & Order UK’, ‘Law & Order Criminal Intent’, ‘Trial By Jury’, as well as the original trailblazing drama itself. ‘SVU’ has garnered so many fans that the once lead detective of the show, Elliot Stabler played by Chris Meloni, has become popular enough to have his very own ‘SVU’ spin-off show, ‘Organized Crime’, that weaves in and out of the ‘SVU’ universe.

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But unlike all of its counterparts, ‘SVU’ deals primarily with, as the introduction states, “sexually-based offenses [that] are considered especially heinous”. Although the prior shows mentioned centered on a handful of sexual assault cases, the focal point of ‘SVU’ are cases revolving around rape, sexual violence, and pedophilia. Before this Wolf Entertainment spin-off, no show had tackled this genre of crime before, and with good reason: ⅕ of American women experience some kind of sexual assault in their lifetime, ⅓ are attacked in their adolescence, and ¼ of American men experience the same abuse. With all of these statistics, it may come as a surprise that ‘SVU’  holds an 8/10 rating on IMDB.com.

So why is this show, ‘SVU’, the longest-running TV drama in history? Why has a show saturated in horrific trauma won 6 Emmy Awards and gotten an average of about 10.1 million viewers per Season for over two decades? What is the secret behind the longstanding popularity of Dick Wolf’s ‘SVU’?

‘Law & Order Special Victims Unit’ – The Perfect Pairings

Chemistry you can’t make in a lab was born when Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni were paired up as the lead detectives of the unit. The daughter of actress Jayne Mansfield and the Oz star established the quick wit of the show and the importance of knowing how to play off of one another.

Benson: She was molested, you know that? That cold facade of hers?

Stabler: Maybe it’s just living in Colorado.

Benson: She dresses more Fifth Avenue than Rocky Mountain.

Stabler: I’m… having a fashion police blackout.

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Very quickly, the pair began to bounce off of each other with ease, playing back and forth like brother and sister, best friends, and even work husband and work wife. In “Misleader”, while the two are examining a recent crime scene, Benson is rummaging around a victim’s purse looking for her ID.

Benson: No jewelry. I always carry at least a pair of earrings in my purse.

Stabler: Yeah, like you carry a purse.

Benson: That’s ‘cause you carry it for me.

Stabler: (playfully) Heh.

In addition to the iconic couple, Dann Florek reprised his role as Captain Cragen, and stand-up comedian and real-life conspiracy theorist Richard Belzer was cast as the wise-cracking, overly-cynical ‘SVU’ veteran. The task force was completed when rapper Ice-T joined in Season 2, bringing with him a naivety that offered a new kind of humor and banter to the group.

In the classic unlikely duo trope, the retired narcotics detective Fin Tutuola and Jewish atheist John Munch, played by Ice-T and Belzer respectively, became partners for the next 6 Seasons. Their dynamic relied on their extreme differences in age, lifestyle, world beliefs, and cultures.

In the episode “Care”, the two are sent to find a suspect’s secret hideout:

Fin: Why do we always get stuck looking for the needle in the haystack?

Munch: Takes me back to the easter egg hunts of my youth.

Fin: You’re Jewish, your parents hid eggs?

Munch: My point exactly, all those futile hours of searching!

The two discover the hideout.

Fin: If you were still a bright-eyed little kid what would that look like to you?

Munch: Deathtrap.

Fin: (Excited) You’re pathetic, that’s the coolest fort ever.

Munch: You had a traumatic childhood too, aye, Sherlock?

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But the cherry on top is these two duos’ relationship to the “dad” of the unit, Captain Donald Cragen. Cragen serves as the most experienced member of their crew, having been captain of homicide, the anti-corruption task force, and now ‘SVU’. As the head of this squad, he is the father figure that the detectives have to report to and often ask for forgiveness rather than for permission.

In Season 2’s episode “Countdown”, all four of the detectives gather around a bathroom stall, waiting for Cragen to come out so they can barrage him with questions and information like children swarm a parent. When Cragen steps out, he shakes his head and turns to the sink saying:

Cragen: I’m not tipping all of you.

Stabler: Sorry, Captain, we got a problem.

In Season 3, even Fin acknowledges his paternal position.

Stabler: (After arresting a suspect) We’re heading over to Mulligan’s to celebrate.

Fin: You’re probably not gonna wanna do that.

Benson: And why is that?

Fin: Dad’s mad.

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The entire squad functions much like a family that teases each other but still gets the job done. Upon hearing the news about Cragen’s temporary reassignment, Sergeant Munch is told to take charge. His work siblings share their reactions:

Benson: (In response to the Captain’s departure) This is insane.

Stabler: You want insane? Look who they put in charge.

Munch: I had nothing to do with it! If drafted, I will not run, if elected I will not serve.

Fin: You are lying like a pile of tissues. You took that Sergeant’s exam right behind our back.

Munch: I took it last year on a bar bet. 

Cragen: Enjoy your new office, Sergeant Munch. Don’t let the power go to your head.

In the episodes mentioned above, the crimes range from murder of a five-year-old, assault of a pregnant woman, kidnapping, domestic abuse, and more. However, the humorous banter and comfort these characters have established among each other create a safe place for the audience, turning the squad into a family we can trust, and a dynamic so many viewers can relate to. 

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Wacky Witnesses

And then, of course, what would this successful show be without the kooky New York caricatures who are witnesses to the featured crime of the week: The guy who lives on the boat with fishing equipment macraméd into his beard, the burglar with a “cerumen problem”, and the mime who only cooperates with the police after Stabler cuts the cord she’s pretending to pull, all add a fantastical element of the show.

As an East-Coaster, I can personally assure the accuracy of these depictions. So can Brandon Stanton, the photographer, and author of Humans of New York, a collection that originally cataloged random people on the streets of The Big Apple. And trust, there are plenty of peculiar and precious people that make an appearance! These unique characters offer a couple of chuckles for the audience members, remind us of people we’ve all seen, and make for excellent interactions between them and the cops.

In the episode “Solitary”, the investigation leads to a copy shop employee named Tracie, the classic valley girl in both voice and look. She has a fresh manicure and early 2000s makeup, similar to that of Britney and Christina.

Tracie: I know exactly what time it was. I get off at 1 AM, so I was watching the clock. That girl was outside going at it with some guy. 

Stabler: Okay, with him? (He shows her a photo)

Tracie: Uh-uh, definitely not. He was Asian, like, ugly cute, and much, much, younger – (Genuinely) Did I just solve the crime? 

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She definitely didn’t solve it, but she did make an impression that helped lead them to their next step and gave the audience a chuckle during an unsettling episode about a woman’s abduction. Many memorable witnesses are never seen again, but pepper the episodes with great intel and performances that remind us of the people we know. These standout strangers provide necessary relief as the detectives go deeper and deeper into the investigation of the crime.

Laugh to Keep from Crying

The writers of ‘SVU’ – including but not limited to Speed Weed, Warren Leight, Josh Singer, and Dawn DeNoon – seem to have the most fun creating the witty banter that spices up the show. They have to. Between the introduction of the bruised and bloodied victim to the heartbreaking interrogations on the stand, puns and dad jokes make these disturbing situations palatable.

In the Season 5 closing episode “Head”, a coprophiliac places a camera in a women’s toilet in an internet café that sends the live feed to his computer. When Detectives Benson and Stabler arrive on the scene, they look out at the sea of people on their mobile devices.

Benson: You used to have to go outside and hide in the bushes. Now you can violate somebody by sitting in front of the computer and enjoying a cup of coffee. Which one do you think is the pervert?

Stabler: (Straight-faced) The guy who downloaded the most crap.

And of course, let’s not forget Munch’s line that comes up later in the episode:

Munch: “[This case] gives a whole new meaning to ‘live streaming video’”. 

These are just some examples of the cold open closing lines and the clever comments that accompany them. Even when dealing with the gruesome findings of the case, the detectives never lack comedic timing. 

In the episode “Nationwide Manhunt”, Season 13 addition Detective Amanda Rollins, portrayed by Kelli Giddish, has returned from maternity leave and hopes to continue gaining the trust of serial killer Gregory Yates, a man who only trusts Detective Rollins with his confessions. Her best friend in the squad, Dominick Carisi, played by Peter Scanavino, tries to tell her it’s too dangerous to go see him. In the scene, Rollins smacks the soda machine aggressively and a drink falls out. She’s proud of herself. She picks it up, and Carisi looks judgemental.

Rollins: What?

Carisi: Nothing. (Sarcastically) You know, I’m just glad to see how motherhood just really mellowed you out.

Rollins: (briefly chuckles) That’s another thing, I… I hate being coddled. What? (Mockingly) I have a baby and all the sudden I can’t talk to serial killers anymore?

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The writers of the show cleverly place these absurd comments in between the odious crimes, but this does not make ‘SVU’ a comedy. In fact, I was not able to find any sources that identified ‘SVU’ as even a dramedy. But we’ve had 23 Seasons of well-cast unlikely duos and 23 Seasons of twisted acts of violence that would be completely insufferable without the humor that makes the stories digestible.

No laughing matter

It is completely arguable that this show is disrespecting the survivors and victims of these crimes by lacing their stories with humor. However, in ‘SVU’, the crimes themselves are not the punchline. The humor is built around the heinous crime in an attempt to ease the tension for a mainstream audience.

Similar to ‘SVU’, The 14 Emmy-Award-winning tv show ‘M.A.S.H’, which stands for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, goes as far as to be a sitcom with a laugh track despite focusing on the emotional and physical turmoil of the Korean War. The show was known for tackling these horrible circumstances with smart-witted Groucho Marx-esque Alan Alda as “Hawkeye” and the gang of doctors, nurses, and soldiers that accompany him. The show had an average of 16 million viewers per Season, more than ‘SVU’ but with half the Seasons. Other shows that revolve around heavy topics that are told with humor include ‘House’ and ‘Shameless’, both having almost 10 year runs.

Will Smith’s story would have us crying without it being introduced through Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.Macbeth’ would drive us mad without Porter finally entertaining the audience. And the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic in ‘Angels in America’ would never be able to get its message across without the absurdity of it all, while still paying respect to its characters.

The entire cast and crew of ‘SVU’ have shed so much light on the populated community of survivors, even helping real-world people come out about their own traumas. The show connects with so many people due to its balance between the tragic and the comedic. Next time someone says ‘SVU’ is too serious for them, tell them to look a little bit closer, and maybe then they can witness the genius of Dick Wolf’s ‘Special Victims Unit’.

The new season of ‘SVU’ is airing Thursdays on NBC at 9 pm EST, directly followed by new episodes of ‘Organized Crime’.

Please review PDF GUIDELINES DOC – it was sent to you. 

Where is the CAST AND CREW? 

Where are the tags? 

Cast: Mariska Hargitay, Chris MeloniKelli Giddish, Ice-T 

Created by: Dick Wolf | Writers: Dick Wolf, Julie Martin, Warren Leight | Producers: Dick Wolf, Mariska Hargitay, Peter Jankowski

By Z Murphy 

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