The creative resurgence of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is easy to overstate. SVU, now in its 15th season, features at least one staggeringly awful episode per season, and at its least inspired, it still veers so closely to paint-by-numbers police procedural that latter-day episodes are tough to distinguish from the earlier installments basic cable networks use to pad out their weekday afternoons.
But more often than not, the SVU of today is a markedly different show than it once was, which would be a given for most scripted dramas to produce over 300 hours of television, but is a profound compliment for a spin-off of a show that prided itself on its slavish devotion to a meticulous formula. SVU’s willingness to evolve is what left it standing among the rubble of the once-impregnable L&O franchise. And while its relative risk-taking has yet to vault it into television’s upper echelon, SVU has certainly gotten good enough to justify its existence as a worthy hour in its own right, rather than simply as the standard-bearer of the granddaddy of crime dramas.
The lion’s share of the credit goes to Warren Leight, the former Law & Order: Criminal Intent writer who rejoined Dick Wolf’s fold as SVU’s showrunner following his work on two dramas felled before their time, In Treatment and FX’s one-and-done boxing show Lights Out. Leight came aboard at a pivotal moment in SVU’s history, taking over the reins after stalled contract negotiations led to Chris Meloni’s departure after 12 seasons. SVU’s future appeared murky without Meloni on-board. The mere existence of hardball salary talks, for the type of show usually well-insulated from cast overhauls, offered proof that Meloni’s Elliot Stabler and his relationship with Mariska Hargitay’s Olivia Benson had become a load-bearing element of the show.
With SVU as the last of the L&O franchise, Leight could have easily gone scurrying back to the format-über-alles style that came to define it. Instead, Leight doubled down on SVU’s atypical focus on its regular characters and their relationships, a strategy that was nearly imperceptible when Leight took over in season 13, but has gradually weaned SVU off its reliance on procedural formula and flashy guest appearances. The result is a more consistent show with enough character beats and longer arcs to buoy the episodes when the cases-of-the-week fail to coalesce.
The shift towards character development and increased serialization has been even more dramatic this season, making clear Leight and his writers understand SVU’s strength lies more in its difference from original recipe L&O than its similarities. Leight’s SVU invests more in its regulars, but is unafraid to shake up its dynamic by losing them—season 15 has already seen the departures of Richard Belzer and Dann Florek, both of whom were written out of the show in a graceful manner not seen in many procedurals. There are no suicides or career-ending scandals, only the muted farewells of life-long cops who eventually decided to move on.
Hargitay, the show’s center of gravity since its inception, has become even more prominent following the reshuffling, as Benson ascends to the captain vacancy left behind by Florek’s Donald Cragen. It’s been a season of change for Benson, who must awkwardly adapt to supervising her former peers while navigating the emotional aftermath of her near-death encounter in the season premiere. When the season begins, Benson is a missing person, kidnapped by William Lewis (Pablo Schreiber), a torture fetishist so terrifying, he makes Schreiber’s Pornstache character in Orange Is The New Black seem chivalrous by comparison. The bracing, two-part season premiere was composed mostly of Hargitay and Schreiber’s nervy duets as Benson and Lewis squared off in a harrowing battle of wits that fueled Hargitay’s most fearless performance in 15 seasons.
For a show that trades so heavily in stock psychopaths, Lewis is an especially unsettling creation, and the writing team kicked season 15 off to a roaring start at the end of season 14, when after failing to pin Lewis to his crimes, Benson arrives home to find Lewis waiting inside her darkened apartment. It’s the type of cliffhanger L&O shows almost never do, but it works for the new SVU, which embraces serialization more than ever. The new SVU also embraces urgency. After far too many seasons of Benson and Stabler investigating murders with tangential sex-crime elements, SVU has pulled back from whodunits and retrained its focus on live victims, lending its stories a greater immediacy, often with a ticking-clock element.
Not surprisingly, SVU 2.0 falters when it hews too closely to L&O tropes. It’s understandable that Leight and his writers would want to retain some of the franchise’s original flavor, since SVU is now the only destination for it. But the episodes can still collapse under the weight of a goofy case-of-the-week, which still happens too often for SVU to rise from a good show to a great one. The problem is most glaring when the show leans on stories “ripped from the headlines,” a tradition just as likely to produce a strong episode as it is an outright groaner. An episode early in the season mashed-up the murder of Trayvon Martin with Paula Deen’s N-word controversy, which is exactly as stupid as it sounds.
But while SVU isn’t yet television’s best cop show, it’s absolutely its most improved, and that uptick in quality is all the more admirable given that, as the only L&O game in town, it could have just as easily embraced predictability rather than injecting a risky new energy. These days, the iconic thunk-thunk sound during the title reveal is the only invariable element of SVU, and the show is all the better for it.
Created by: Dick Wolf
Starring: Mariska Hargitay, Ice-T, Danny Pino, Kelli Giddish, Raúl Esparza
Airs: Wednesdays at 9:00 p.m. Eastern on NBC
Format: Hour-long police procedural
16 episodes watched for review