Law and Order is one of the longest-running and most enduring franchises on TV. Different series, including the original and Criminal Intent, have come and gone over the years, and yet SVU still remains. This week the crime drama will end its 18th season and NBC has renewed the series for season 19.
Just let that sink in for a minute. 19 seasons. Law & Order: SVU premiered in 1999. This means that the majority of high school students in the United States have not lived in a time where SVU was not on the air. That’s an incredible feat, and not one many series achieve. So what is it about SVU that makes it such an enduring show? And what about this show makes us keep watching? After all these years, why are we all still obsessed with Olivia Benson and the Special Victims Unit? I have a few ideas.
In 19 years, SVU has cycled through a host of characters, detectives and district attorneys alike. You would think this would seriously affect the show’s fanbase. Many shows have difficulty rebounding after losing main characters and trying to replace them (see: CSI.) And yet, SVU remains strong with well-liked characters regardless of how long they stay on the show. So it that the SVU characters are just replaceable and it works in the show’s favor? Perhaps. But it certainly is more complicated than that. Olivia Benson, without a doubt, is the heart of SVU. Mariska Hargitay is the only actor who has been there since the beginning and Benson’s lovable, dogged determination endears her to all who watch (even if she can be in the wrong sometimes.)
So, with the strength of Olivia at the helm, it seems characters can come and go. And the ones that do are still just as interesting and endearing as Benson is for the time they are there. There’s a lot going on with characters on SVU, but at the end of the day, the constant intriguing dynamic between the unit is a strength for this series.
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We’re fascinated with crime. It’s a little strange but true. We love murder mysteries and watching detectives chase down molesters, rapists and serial killers. That’s why we’re watching SVU. The TV crime-obsession has been going on for decades and a number of shows have fed off this phenomenon — perhaps none, however, as successfully as SVU. If you don’t get the hint from “Special Victims Unit” and the intro at the beginning of each episode, SVU covers the creepiest, most unbelievable, and many times most intriguing crimes. You only need to see a few minutes of SVU, at any point in the episode, and you’re going to be sucked in.
The setup of this show, in itself, is a strength. You’d think we’d get tired of Benson chasing a serial rapist around Manhattan after 19 years … and yet, there’s always some little detail that draws you in. In this way too, SVU plays to its plot strengths, coming up with all sorts of different twisted and fascinating stories. They play to what their audience wants to see and add psychology, emotion and tension (sexual and otherwise) between the detectives and lawyers into the plot mix.
And one of the greatest things about SVU is that you don’t have to see every episode to enjoy it. There are connections throughout, but they don’t overwhelm so that you can’t pick up episodes as you please. You can watch season 3 one day and season 14 another and it’s still as enjoyable as ever. The only difference (besides characters) you’ll notice is Olivia’s hair. True fans can identify time by her hair.
Many SVU episodes are based on real crimes and are “ripped from the headlines” stories. Sometimes it’s pretty clear what real-life case the episode is based on, like “Making a Rapist” being based on Making a Murderer. Sometimes it’s not so obvious, but when you watch, the details sound familiar and if you do enough digging, you can figure it out.
What is so interesting about this method is that it gives SVU the opportunity to provide commentary on real-life issues and real crimes that have occurred. Sometimes SVU changes the details of the real-life story and sometimes it stays close to the truth, but regardless, it gives the audience the ability to look at these stories in a new, interesting and entertaining way. SVU doesn’t always resolve the case their story is based on and sometimes they muddle the complicated issues, but I’ve got to give them credit for their effort and success with this method.
If you’re interested in learning more about episodes with “ripped from the headlines” plots, I highly recommend “These Are Their Stories: The Law & Order Podcast.” This podcast breaks down different Law & Order episodes and offers commentary and criticism, incorporating the real-life story the episode is based on.
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“Comfort” might not be the first word you would associate with SVU, but hear me out. I think one of the reasons SVU has such longevity is because it has become very comfortable with audiences. When you watch an episode of SVU, you know (more or less) what you’re getting into. You know the characters, you know to a certain extent how the episode will play out, and you know the ending might not be exactly what you wanted or expected. And while you would think this predictability would make the show boring for audiences, it doesn’t. It just makes it comfortable, and we can all use a little comfort in our lives from time to time.
SVU may not be a Game of Thrones, but it’s the show you turn to when you need it. Some fans may tune in every week for new episodes, others might binge it, or others may watch it when they come upon it in the channel guide. Everyone has a different relationship with the show, but if you give it some thought, I think you’ll admit that it is comforting. The details may be a little different from episode to episode but the essence is the same. And in that way, SVU is TV “home” for fans and has been for nearly two decades.
Ultimately, there are many reasons (including the ones above) why SVU remains as successful as it is and why we keep tuning in year after year. And I will say, the intro at the beginning and the “dun dun” definitely help.
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Law & Order: SVU airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on NBC.
(Image courtesy of NBC)