Never have the opening lines of a TV show been met with such fervent enthusiasm as the introduction for Law & Order: SVU.
Die-hard fans (myself included) can easily recite it by heart: “In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories. Dun dun.”
If you haven’t seen SVU and were unable to infer the premise from the pithy opening sequence quoted above, the setup is deceptively simple: tireless detectives from Manhattan’s Special Victims Unit (SVU, for short) combat sex crimes in an engaging, instantly iconic police drama with moments of wry humor and tongue-in-cheek allusions.
The show, created by Dick Wolf in 1999 as a spin-off of his Law & Order series, quickly garnered a devoted fan base; 18 million people watched the fifth season of the show, and soon, it was even outperforming Wolf’s original Law & Order.
On paper, the show sounds like it shouldn’t be a hit. An hour-long crime drama devoted to portraying sordid, disturbing instances of rape, sexual abuse, kidnapping, and/or domestic violence? Hardly primetime television material, especially in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, decades before the #MeToo movement would imbue popular discourse with a more feminist bent. Nevertheless, SVU—with its ripped-from-the-headlines plots and A-list guest stars like Cynthia Nixon, Alec Baldwin, and Robin Williams—remained popular, and has continued to churn out episodes for nearly twenty years now. It also didn’t hurt that the show’s original two stars—Christopher Meloni as Detective Elliot Stabler, and Mariska Hargitay as Detective Olivia Benson—had palpable chemistry. (And definitely should have gotten together, IMO.)
A recent screening of the show’s 20th season premiere at the Tribeca TV Festival proved that decades after its inception, SVU’s popularity shows no sign of waning. The screening felt more like a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show than a venerable TV drama premiere, with fans raucously reciting the famous intro, and yelling their allegiances (“I love you, Mariska!”) at the screen ad nauseum, and cheering when favorite characters first appeared on screen. Collective gasps and “awws” followed the premiere’s most dramatic or poignant moments, and wisecracks from Det. Tutuola (Ice-T) were met with cheers and laughter.
The season 20 premiere was quintessential SVU: after a weekend hunting trip, a soft-spoken, gentle teenage boy shows up at school with blood on the back of his shorts— anally raped, as the SVU detectives later discover. After speaking with the victim, Sam, and his family, they soon realize that the victim’s father or brother was likely to blame for the incident, the rape a result of a sadistic, macho coming-of-age rite inflicted after Sam failed to kill a rabbit while out hunting.
Only one part of the two-part premiere was shown, and when the credits rolled after the first episode cliffhanger ending, the audience was audibly disappointed. “That’s it?” an incredulous viewer exclaimed behind me, as the infamous tagline: “Executive producer: Dick Wolf” flashed on screen.
She wasn’t the only one disappointed. For a show that’s not afraid to be political—last season’s finale touched on immigration, DACA, and Mexican “illegals” navigating Trump’s America—the season premiere seemed a little, well, tepid. The themes of the episode, though, were typical SVU, touching on toxic masculinity and the fact that not all victims of rape or sexual abuse are women.
“It was an area that was sort of underexplored, even on [the original] Law & Order,” creator and executive producer Dick Wolf said of the show’s subject matter. Wolf joined cast members Mariska Hargitay, Ice-T, Kelli Giddish, Peter Scanavino, and newcomer Phillip Winchester for a panel after the screening. “Mariska [Hargitay] is literally the grandmother—or the mother—of the #MeToo movement,” he added.
An exuberant Hargitay seemed aghast at the title of “grandmother,” regardless of the context, and playfully flexed her feet, showing off a gorgeous pair of sky-high Louboutins. “Ain’t no grandmother in these shoes!” she proclaimed. Turning serious, Hargitay praised the show’s devotion to victims of sexual assault. “I feel so grateful that we’ve brought something that has traditionally been swept under the carpet… to the water cooler. [SVU] brought this conversation into the public arena in a way that has been profound, and has done a lot of healing.”
Semantics aside, Wolf does have a point. SVU’s dedication to the narratives of sexual assault victims far predates our current preoccupation with gender violence. And Hargitay’s Detective Olivia Benson served as the perfect analog to the show’s pro-victim, anti-sex crimes stance. Benson definitely has her problematic moments—in season 5, episode 9 (“Control”), Benson realizes that a drunk woman whose rape claims she dismissed years ago was in reality a victim of a known sexual sadist; in season 1, episode 14 (“Limitations”), Benson actually sends a rape victim to jail for refusing to cooperate with police—but overall, she’s a fearless crusader for sexual assault victims who often takes it upon herself to get them the help (or justice) they need.
Hargitay said during the panel that she was immediately drawn to the show, calling it “brave” and “progressive.” And it many ways, it is. Throughout its two-decade tenure, Law & Order: SVU has taken an unflinching glimpse at sexual trauma, and redefined the ways it’s portrayed in popular culture. No longer are rapists the stereotypical stranger who jumps you in a dark alley; rather, SVU paints a nuanced portrait of sexual violence, and pays special attentions to the victims, who are often stripped of their agency or narratives in portrayals of an already dehumanizing ordeal.
While more complex examinations of sexual violence have since erupted into the mainstream, SVU was really one of the first shows on television to take the radical stance of believing the victims portrayed in its episodes, oftentimes providing them with justice or closure that real-life sexual assault victims are unable to obtain. “Our show in many ways is an ideal unit of how we wish sexual assault and domestic violence was met in the world,” Hargitay said. “Survivors are believed. Period.”
Aside from proving that sexual assault victims have agency and credibility, SVU has also delved deeper into specific aspects of rape culture, including, as Hargitay pointed out, the “neurobiology” of trauma, which can involve fractured, erroneous memories and the inability to fight back. The all-too hazy nature of consent is also frequently addressed on the show, as is the current, real-life rape kit backlog—wherein DNA evidence crucial to solving a rape case remains untested and largely forgotten about—plaguing police departments across the nation. The latter’s presence on the show was a result of Hargitay’s foundation, Joyful Heart, and their initiative to end the rape kit backlog.
Hargitay, however, maintains that the show has always been focused with bringing the stories of victims to the mainstream, regardless of reception. “Dick started [SVU] before people were talking about it,” she said. “That’s the brilliance of it.”
As for the show’s newfound relevancy in the #MeToo era, well, it’s been a long time coming. “The fact of the matter is,” Hargitay explained, “the stories were always there. People are just talking about the stories now.”