TVThe Forgotten Greatness of Law & Order: SVU
SVU might be America’s go-to police procedural, but its first season was the show at its smartest and most nuanced.
Few things are as comforting as Christopher Meloni’s ass: it is the stuff of BuzzFeed listicles, the subject of Tumblr fascination and charmingly, according to Meloni himself, at some point it was deemed the “best butt in primetime.” It’s a pillowy comfort during tough times. Recently, in the spirit of self preservation, I made the decision to ensconce myself firmly within the fictional landscape in which Meloni’s derriere thrives— one that often acts as a salve to real life troubles: I began rewatching Law & Order: SVU from the beginning of its 17 season run. Rumors have been swirling recently that Meloni, who left the show abruptly after 12 seasons, might make a return going into season 18.
The longevous police procedural—with Mariska Hargitay and Meloni as leads—has secured a seemingly permanent spot in the primetime lineup on NBC. It is currently the longest running scripted non-animated U.S. primetime TV series, and its lead actors command up to half a million dollars per episode. The series has endured in popularity in a way few others have; it is a problematic guilty pleasure for all sorts of people. It is also a show which tends to obscure the messy reality of sexual assault, placing characters firmly into boxes marked “good” or “bad” and missing the fact that there is often slippage between these categories in real life. Yet the series has always had an emotional pull that is deeply comforting in its simplicity. I remain soothed by Olivia Benson’s compassion for victims, and I still delight in Elliot Stabler’s protective stance. With the bang of a gavel at the end of each episode, perpetrators were made to pay the price. Victims were always believed.
When I started the series again, I began with the first season… I found myself in mild shock at the quality of writing.
I’ve been a fan for more than a decade—since I’ve been old enough to consume fictionalized (but often ripped straight-from-headlines) narratives around sexual violence. The series has a way of re-enacting trauma almost like play acting; it is often therapeutic to survivors. In fact, I’ve been watching the show far longer than I’ve had a cogent analysis around sexual violence and its linkages to patriarchy, the criminal justice system or systems of power and privilege.
When I started the series again, I began with the first season. But just a couple of episodes in, I found myself in mild shock at the quality of writing. The first season, which premiered in September 1999, is markedly different from later seasons when it comes to the plotlines that anchor the show’s drama. Here were story arcs that seemed thoughtful and considered next to the sensationalized and relatively simplistic fare that the show eventually became known for. This was prior to Ice T (of “Copkiller” fame) joining the cast. It was also before 9/11 fundamentally changed the way we talk about policing in this country, preventing any possibility of critical analysis or pushback. After doing some research, I learned that showrunner Robert Palm left after the first season because he “felt too disturbed by the subject matter.” What’s more, according to the unofficial companion book to the series (coauthored by Law and Order franchise creator Dick Wolf), the first season featured a greater number of women writers and aimed to bring a “strong women’s perspective” to the small screen. Unfortunately, many of these same writers were later fired because their scripts were not “up to par.”
In rewatching the first season, I was shocked to discover a plotline I had long since forgotten: that of a Quaker woman who had no desire to incarcerate her rapist and resisted all efforts to do so. That a victim could choose not to go the route of traversing the criminal justice system, either for her own sake or because she felt she would gain nothing from putting her rapist in a cage was, well, radical. Another episode explicitly detailed how war and empire, specifically in Serbia, facilitated mass sexual assault with few consequences for the perpetrators, often given a pass during conflict. In this episode, two of the victims conspired to kill their rapist, allowing the others to rest knowing that the man who threatened their safety was in the ground—again, with the episode coming to rest at a radical conclusion. The writing presages America’s own introspection on sexual assault in the military as documented in the film The Invisible War.
There were other storylines depicting prominent members of the judicial system as perpetrators, and law enforcement as complicit or uncaring when it came to victim’s needs. It was made clear that the actions of one cop—played by Dean Winters—could potentially derail the actions of three good cops (Benson, Stabler, and Munch) because he was skeptical of a victim’s account of her assault. In other words, justice for the victim was potentially foreclosed in a systemic sense. That victim, Harper Anderson, never truly receives “closure” after her assault either. In fact, she works out incessantly and sleeps in her running shoes—underscoring that for most survivors, “survival” is something that one is constantly negotiating. "The truth is: everybody changes everyday. And some things are more devastating than others. But we never are the same," Detective Benson gently reminds Harper Anderson. It never really goes away.
TV depictions of law enforcement tend to either paint police officers as saints or one-dimensional villains—there is rarely an in-between. But like most people, law enforcement officers are flawed and operating within a system that not only works against them but forces them to work against the humanity of those they are supposed to protect and serve. It’s important that the first season of Law & Order: SVU makes this reality widely legible. Any consideration of the emotional landscape of law enforcement which pushes past sentimentality and acknowledges the violent reality of policing in this country is rare.
You don’t turn off an episode of SVU, and you never flip the channel.
It was deeply moving, too, to see Detective Olivia Benson, whose origin story is predicated on the fact that she herself is the product of a rape, grapple with that heavy psychological truth. While we may want to sanitize that reality, the fact remains that many women either opt to raise children who result from assault, or are unable to find other avenues. Without doubt, the most compelling aspect of this first season of the show and the throughline of all of these truths around assault is the fact that we create the material and psychic conditions for men to assault women. And after the fact, we leave women to contend with the brunt of the consequences themselves.
An emergent theme in the writing of the first season is that women are left to fend off predators in a world that is made for their comfort and ease. The “dedicated detectives” depicted—the “members of an elite squad” whose entire mission lies in believing, protecting, and at times avenging survivors—consistently orient themselves against perpetrators. The series serves up well written, high stakes drama. People love it so dearly because it has maintained consistent entertainment value for the audience. You don’t turn off an episode of SVU, and you never flip the channel. The audience is deeply emotionally invested in the characters: you care about Benson’s desire to have a child, Cragen’s struggle to stay sober, and Stabler’s drive to shield his kids from the world’s ugliness.
But for survivors, the attraction goes deeper than pure entertainment. Law & Order: SVU offers a controlled outcome in what is meant to be a depiction of the chaotic world we inhabit. Regaining control over one’s circumstances, even by virtue of engaging with a fictionalized television landscape, can be deeply empowering for survivors. From the outside, it may seem dissonant or even perverse to willfully immerse oneself in depictions of violence you’ve lived through, and for some survivors it certainly is. But for others, it makes sense to temper their real world exhaustion by turning to a contained universe where justice is guaranteed. The violence is a constant—survivors will continue to be triggered, that much is guaranteed. At its best, the series offers something else: a chance to move through the violence and arrive somewhere safely on the other side.