Law and Order: SVU - Seasons 1-20
“For the first time in SVU history, women will outnumber men in the writers’ room.”
Title: Law and Order: Special Victims Unit
Episodes Reviewed: Seasons 1-20
Creator: Dick Wolf 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Julie Martin 👩🏼🇺🇸 (47 eps), Dawn DeNoon 👩🏼🇺🇸 (28 eps), Warren Leight 👨🏼🇺🇸 (25 eps), Jonathan Greene 👨🏼🇺🇸 (22 eps), Amanda Green 👩🏼🇺🇸 (19 eps), Judith McCreary 👩🏾🇺🇸 (18 eps), Michael S. Chernuchin 👨🏼🇺🇸 (18 eps), Kevin Fox 👨🏼🇺🇸 (13 eps), Lisa Marie Petersen 👩🏼🇺🇸 (12 eps), Daniel Truly 👨🏼🇺🇸 (12 eps), Michele Fazekas 👩🏼🇺🇸 (10 eps), and various
Reviewed by Dana 👩🏼🇺🇸
Fans of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit rejoiced last year when NBC announced the show’s renewal—not just because they got more SVU, but because a twenty-first season would make it the longest-running primetime drama in history.* Its longevity presents a bit of a puzzle though; while the technical aspects are well-honed, the lasting appeal of a show about graphic sex crimes can feel a bit disturbing. But then, crime has always had a certain appeal to television audiences, with no shortage of thinkpieces positing an explanation as to why.
What sets SVU apart from others in the massive crime show genre is that it’s more than a weekly frolic through the depraved human mind—instead, real and relatable emotion grounds every story. Unlike its contemporaries, SVU doesn’t simply end when the bad guy gets arrested. It explores themes that delve into moral grey areas and ponders questions that don’t hold easy answers.
Crucially, SVU acknowledges the failures of the system it depicts, in both the eponymous law and order. Trials move ahead on shaky evidence and flawed assumptions, false confessions arise from outdated and ineffective interrogation tactics, and what is just is not always right, or even legal.
This complexity extends to its central characters, who are excruciatingly flawed and fuck things up like the rest of us when they allow personal bias to affect the justice they’re tasked with meting out. Yet our heroes evolve over time, grappling with issues that aren’t neatly resolved and tucked into their backstories like fun facts. Shows like Criminal Minds and Bones might equip their characters with a central tragedy that pops up whenever it makes for convenient b-story fodder, but SVU tends to let its characters reel. Messiness, ultimately, serves as the show’s overarching theme: The multi-headed beast of sexual assault leaves in its wake destruction and devastation, and in New York City, a group of dedicated detectives do what they can to find justice in the aftermath.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES, approximately half the time
In stark contrast to its peers, SVU understands its place in the cultural zeitgeist and the responsibility that comes with that. Lead sleuth Olivia Benson, now the longest-running female character in primetime history, has become (along with Mariska Hargitay who portrays her) a beacon of recognition for survivors.
Neither viewers nor producers knew, when it premiered, that she would become the heart and backbone of the show. Like so many characters, Benson harbors a tragic past that drives her into the field—the product of her mother’s rape, she is a literal manifestation of trauma. Rather than let that handicap her, though, she turns her experience into a sort of empathetic superpower. Even when her trauma rears its ugly head, causing her to lose control at times, her past is never presented as something that needs to be overcome or solved. She’s undeniably messed up, but only as much as the rest of us, who are all products of circumstance. Hargitay, herself a crusader for survivors’ rights, pulls SVU past the category of procedural by powering it with radical compassion.
In its treatment of rape, assault, and harassment, SVU has served as a bastion of justice for victims. “No means no” has been hammered home over and over again. And as affirmative consent—the shift to “yes means yes”—became mainstream, SVU had already invested time in explaining, with nuance and empathy, that consent is both requisite and revocable.
Following the Season 12 exit of lovable embodiment of toxic masculinity, Detective Elliot Stabler (Chris Meloni), words like “whore” and “ho” disappeared from use. The show has since moved towards a more enlightened view of sex work, though it’s worth noting that the members of the 1-6 still haven’t figured out a coherent stance on the controversial anti-trafficking law known as FOSTA-SESTA—something a show meant to champion victims’ rights really ought to be out in front of.
No single show with so long a pedigree as SVU, however, could be perfect; and SVU’s burden of responsibility means that when it fails, it comes as a sort of betrayal. Justifiable outrage erupted at the casting of Mike Tyson, a convicted and unremorseful rapist, as a rape victim (Season 14’s “Monster’s Legacy”). A Season 16 take on Gamergate managed to offend victims of harassment and gamers alike, inadvertently trivializing victims’ real experiences and drawing caricatures of fanboys that made the real ones seem valid in flooding the episode’s IMDB page with negative reviews (because of course they did).
When it succeeds, though, it can feel like reckoning. SVU kicked off its record-breaking twenty-first season with a fictionalized version of the Weinstein scandal, titled “I’m Going to Make You a Star.” Its 42-minute confines don’t leave much room for the origins of the #MeToo movement to play out in full. Still, newly-returned showrunner Warren Leight made a point of exploring how both the perpetrator and the justice system failed victims while introducing two new female characters of color (Jamie Gray Hyder as Vice Detective Kat Azar Tamin, and Zuleikha Robinson as Bureau Chief Vanessa Hadid), both of whom have potential to recur. Leight’s return seems to harken a renewed commitment to female representation on the show: For the first time, women will outnumber men in the writers’ room.
For all of SVU’s acknowledgement of an imperfect system, being the most realistic cop procedural is akin to being the least toxic white guy in a Chuck Lorre writers’ room. All too often, SVU frames shady police tactics as necessary, or at least done with the best of intentions. Per SVU, the manipulation of suspects by police can be overlooked because it eventually leads to justice—something we know is bullshit from studies on the inaccuracy of coerced confessions and historical accounts of abuses in power, recently captured in Ava DuVernay’s miniseries, When They See Us. Even when real cops do act in good faith, that faith is inevitably tainted by racial biases and blue walls of silence.
Moreover, a certain recklessness pervades some of SVU’s attempts at creating “ripped from the headlines” stories. A Season 15 episode delivers a mashup of Trayvon Martin’s murder and the controversy over famed butter chef Paula Deen’s use of a slur. Instead of touching on the litany of injustices that Black people face, including the way justice systems have been designed to fail young Black men, SVU delivers a wholly unrealistic take where the killer’s claims of self-defense carry far more validity than George Zimmerman ever had, yet the police and district attorney are almost laughably eager to hold him in check. And, just to add insult to injury, we’re treated to a scene of a Black detective defending the NYPD’s practice of stop-and-frisk when Ice-T’s Odafin “Fin” Tutuola takes the stand.
The same sense of fumbling oversimplification and use of characters of color to defend the NYPD suffuses “Amaro’s One-Eighty” (Season 15, Episode 11), depicting a police shooting of a young Black man. The narrative follows not the unarmed teenager paralyzed by a bullet, but Detective Amaro (Danny Pino), inevitably setting the audience up to take the side of the police.
The clumsy handling of race makes sense, considering that all of the episodes in question were written by white writers working in a mostly-white writers’ room. In fact, SVU’s Season 16 managed to be less diverse in the room than it was in Season 2, somehow. And where the show has evolved in its understanding of gender, sexuality, and assault, the same doesn’t apply to race. A few extras holding #BlackLivesMatter signs in the background don’t even scratch the surface of the ways race plays into law enforcement and America’s judicial system.
On one hand, SVU has always outpaced its peers on LGBTQ rights. Early episodes drop terms like “gender identity,” well before they’d entered the mainstream lexicon, and push back on harmful stereotypes about same-sex parenting and pedophilia. Yet its characters have almost exclusively been written as cisgendered and straight, with the exception of psychologist George Huang, played by openly gay, Tony Award-winning B.D. Wong. Huang, billed as a regular cast member from Seasons 3 through 12, drops an allusion to being gay in Season 6 but doesn’t actually confirm his sexuality until the twelfth season. Even still, he’s never given a romantic storyline or an offscreen partner, and refers only once to the less-than-wonderful experience of being a “single gay man” in Oklahoma City.
The same “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” approach to personal lives extends to ADA Rafael Barba (Raúl Esparza). While many fans have read the character as queer-coded, two glancing references to female exes crop up during his long tenure on the show. Even when Esparza, an openly bisexual man, and costar Peter Scanavino (who plays Detective Sonny Carisi) seemingly endorsed their pairing, that ‘ship never sailed. Nor did any romantic storyline for Barba, in fact, despite his most notable predecessors—Stephanie March’s Alex Cabot, Diane Neal’s Casey Novak, and Christine Lahti’s Sonya Paxton—having all been granted an interrupted date or a flirty phone call. What queer representation exists in the main cast is in name only, and barely at that.
All of which, again, stands at odds with the show’s treatment of queerness in general. Even in its early days, when homophobia and transphobia tinged the dialogue like a microaggressive twang, SVU acknowledged the institutional homophobia of the NYPD. In “Service,” (Season 19, Episode 18), writers weave a thread about a closeted officer whose fear of being outed keeps him from coming forward about a crime. The impact that knowing he’s gay could have on his career, on how his colleagues would see him, are real, and SVU doesn’t just brush it off as some detail irrelevant to their case.
Above all, the show has evolved on trans issues, measurable in part by the way the vernacular has shifted. Terms like “tranny,” “transvestite,” and “heshe” pervade early seasons, with the last use of the term “transvestite” coming in Season 12 (courtesy of the aforementioned Macho Man Cop, Det. Stabler). In addition, SVU barely distinguished between gender identity and sexual preference. A Season 4 episode about a pre-op trans woman registers as slightly ahead of the curve for 2003, but feels utterly dense for 2019: Even as detectives try to offer the distraught woman sympathy, they stand idly by as her boyfriend violently grabs her genitals. Compare that with Season 17’s “Transgender Bridge,” which depicts a trans teen with sensitivity and a respectful, consistent use of correct gender pronouns.
At the same time, episodes like Season 19’s “Service” show that while SVU is capable of creating nuanced characters, it’s not always sure of what to do with them. A trans military officer, played by openly trans actor (Marquise Vilson), witnesses a rape but refuses to testify out of fear that he will be outed, and potentially discharged. In humanizing the potential cost of a ban on transgendered persons serving in the military—and depicting a trans person as neither a victim nor perpetrator—the episode gets points for inclusion. But in the detectives’ push to force the officer to testify, they inadvertently set up a scenario in which the Black, trans man is more or less sacrificed in order to get justice for the white woman who was raped. As much as every victim deserves justice, the episode reflects not just an incomplete understanding of intersectionality, but the absence of trans perspectives in the writers’ room.
Mediaversity Grade: B- 3.81/5
In preparing to write this review, I did something absurd: I rewatched every episode—458 of them—in order over the course of two months. I filled a journal with notes as I watched, full of things that won’t fit into this review.
I kept track of how often one of the detectives threatened a suspect with prison rape (way too often) and whenever the death penalty came up (they finally stopped mentioning it after New York State officially prohibited it in 2007.) I made notes on episodes’ treatment of mental health (some good, some infuriating) and whenever a rape allegation that turned out to be false entered the narrative (as in real life, it’s hard to calculate—but it’s rare.) At one point, and after several glasses of wine, I convinced myself that I had uncovered a vast conspiracy involving a writer that didn’t exist and a nefarious corporate agenda. (I hadn’t. Probably.) Mostly, I reaffirmed what I already knew: Watching SVU is emotionally exhausting, but it has to be.
“I have been privileged to bear witness to a lot of pain,” Mariska Hargitay told an audience at a 2017 screening of I Am Evidence, the documentary she helped produce about the nationwide rape kit backlog. The sentiment feels unique to SVU, a show that asks its audience to think about pain, to sit with it for forty minutes at a time, and to know that when the screen fades to black—that pain will persist. But maybe that’s why SVU has lasted so long. There is always more pain to be recognized, and always more justice to be served.
* While Gunsmoke still holds the record for most live-action episodes (635, to SVU’s 458), its twenty seasons spanned only nineteen and a half years. The Simpsons holds the record for overall primetime television episodes.