Lunchtable TV Talk: Law & Order SVU


“When did we become the voices of reason?” (SVU’s Olivia Benson as portrayed by Mariska Hargitay to Ice-T’s Detective Fin Tutuola)

Det Tutuola: “Sooner or later, we play all the parts.”

The endless Law & Order crime-and-punishment franchise is standard but solid fare, generally speaking – something one can play in the background without paying much attention. But Special Victims Unit (SVU), despite following the same template, is not as easy to ignore. I recently started watching the later seasons of the show, and find myself increasingly disgusted but still intrigued by the bigger picture. SVU shows a world that is very dangerous – with unseen risks lurking around every corner and potentially in every person you meet. It’s an ugly, brutal, pain-filled, cruel world – particularly for women and children. Is the world really like this? Or are shows like SVU making us more paranoid that we live in a world that is more fraught with danger than it really is? Is the show desensitizing us to real horrors? I started asking these questions as I watched episode after episode, and found out I am not alone. A recent Slate article posed similar queries, as the 17th season of the show premiered – the only one among the once large L&O family still on TV. Is the show, the article asks, “inevitably exploitative and fear-mongering?”

“…some story lines get downright creepy—like the arc involving sadist and serial rapist/murderer William Lewis, which ran over six episodes between May 2013 and April 2014. SVU was pretty explicit about the horrific things Lewis, played by Pablo Schreiber, did to the women he kidnapped and abused. “Some people were legitimately disturbed by those episodes,” Leight admitted. They were also “by far the most popular” of the nearly 100 episodes in the Leight era. “I will say, unequivocally, the audience prefers the more overtly dangerous ones,” he says. It’s impossible to diagnose exactly why, of course, though Leight speculates that it could be that the mostly female audience finds it cathartic to watch “these disturbing guys get caught, as opposed to real life, where they often aren’t.”

Personally, I doubt it is completely attributable to catharsis. I think some of it is that people are voyeurs. People like being disturbed… and some are disturbed.

I do in fact think a lot about the justice system, gender, sexuality and law v moral “norms” and all kinds of things as a result of watching the show. An interesting aspect of the show is character development. Most of the L&O series have been procedural and focused very little on the characters’ personal lives, and even though SVU delves further into the personal histories and problems of its characters, it never becomes a soap opera or character drama. We can see, for example, that Hargitay’s Benson is often driven by her own history and though skilled, sympathetic and a tireless, vocal advocate for victims, she is just as likely to be blind to the big picture, pursuing suspected perpetrators and refusing to see any evidence that doesn’t support her theory of who the criminal is, which we see leading to the ruin of innocent suspects. Luckily in later seasons, we’ve seen this counterbalanced by the character Amanda Rollins, whose own imperfections and experience lead her to question motivations and seek insight around Benson’s sizable blind spots. Interestingly the show provides a balanced view of the sensitive nature of these kinds of heinous crimes and how the law enforcement and justice system handles investigations and suspects.

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