These vicious felonies
Next month, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit will start its 23rd season. It is the longest running police procedural currently on TV (the UK cop drama, The Bill, ran for 27 years until 2010).
The procedural itself is a fantastic artifact of popular culture. In the nineteenth century, fiction writers turned to the detective as a subject: first the private detective, later the police officer. A crime and its solution proved a popular model for readers. Later through broadcast media we got the police procedural genre, which has developed its own tropes and styles, some of them built around the realities of law enforcement and some built from traditional dramatic techniques.
In the police you have a fantastic setting for drama: people who already operate within a hierarchical workplace structure into which character types can easily be slotted (the mismatched partners; the rivals; the ambitious newcomer; the domineering boss). The nature of detection lends itself to a “case of the week” model. Each episode starts with a crime and ends with a perpetrator led off in handcuffs. Creatively, this offers an opportunity for writers to create completely different narratives each week, based around a core set of characters. This combination of novelty and familiarity for audiences that has proved to be enduringly popular.
It’s also a format for that has worked wonderfully well with programs that are going to be seen in repeats for years. With no long plot arcs, episodes can be seen in any order, each one offering a self-contained story.
SVU was a product of the Law & Order franchise created by Dick Wolf. In addition to the original Law & Order, other shows in the stable have included Law & Order: Arrest and Trial, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, plus Los Angeles and London offshoots. Of all these, only SVU is still running (a new show, Law & Order: Organized Crime, is forthcoming).
But I never would have predicted SVU be the one that survived (I was an Angry Fan™ when Law & Order was cancelled. I still am). It seemed too niche. Who wants to watch a show about sexual assault? (Millions of people, apparently).
For those whose memories aren’t so clear, SVU started in 1999. (It began the trend for initialized shows, the many CSI and NCIS variants). The main characters were Mariska Hargitay’s Olivia Benson (still the series lead) and Christopher Meloni’s Elliot Stabler. They played detectives investigating the crimes (as the intro tells us) that are “especially heinous”.
Stabler played the voice of the man in the street, his views evolving over time. He would voice things audience members might have been thinking, like “how can a man be raped by a woman?” (and “who the hell cares?” when told that another cop might have thrown a pedophile out a window). He was the kind of guy who might punch a rapist and be cheered on by the viewer.
The detective squad also included John Munch (Richard Belzer), a character imported from Homicide: Life on the Street, which ended that year. Although Dick Wolf didn’t make Homicide, it was also on NBC and had occasional crossovers with L&O: putting these Baltimore and New York cops in the same fictional universe.
Munch was a quirky character - but also well known to much of the audience, serving as a reference point in the rather new environment of “sex crimes” police. (When the show started, the cops would introduce themselves as “Sex Crimes”, only later did they start saying “SVU”)
Munch was one of TV’s most notorious conspiracy theorists: he believed the moon landing was fake, and long believed he was had been under surveillance for anti-government activities in his youth. (He was disappointed to discover that his FBI file was in fact extremely brief, with a comment writing him off as a “dilettante”). He was a paradoxical character, who presented himself as a representative of the counterculture, but was in fact “the Man”, in a suit and tie driving a Crown Vic. Munch left the show in 2014, and with him ended a longrunning connection to the conspiracy mindset I’ve written about before (Munch even appeared as a character on the The X-Files).
SVU has always focused more on the characters of the cops than the other L&O shows. This highlights, in a way, one of the challenges of a show based around the most repellent crimes: precisely how much time the audience wants to spend with that type of criminal. L&O’s original format was that the first half was the cops finding the perpetrator (it was usually a murder), and the second half the court case. The court wrangling was often fascinating - because of the variety of reasons someone can kill. The defendant was sometimes sympathetic, or at least had mitigating factors in their favor.
But SVU can’t focus so much on the court issues, because the answer to who did it is always: “some sick pervert”. The viewer has limited patience for the legal machinations of child molesters, or watching a smug defense lawyer get them acquitted on a technicality. Nonetheless, we obviously have a lurid fascination for sex crimes, as tabloids have always known. So the show focuses on the cops and the victims.
As the seasons progressed, SVU has strayed further from the original L&O remit to not go home with the characters. And SVU lays it on thick: Olivia Benson is herself a child of stranger-rape. It’s become more soapy and ridiculous at times (remember when Captain Cragen woke up next to a dead hooker?). With frosted lenses (on Hargitay), affairs, illegitimate children: at times it’s like Young and the Restless in a police station. With the original L&O, there were almost no continuing story arcs. Even the death of Claire Kincaid - in a car with Lennie Briscoe - didn’t produce the amount of introspection and on-screen agonising as the various relationship dramas of the detectives on SVU.
As a historian of crime and policing, I’ve been fascinated by the presentation of urban history in police dramas (I wrote about The Wire and Baltimore for TIME). L&O offered a chronicle of New York’s recovery from the crack epidemic through the Giuliani years. Now, earlier episodes seem archaic (police officers have to make calls from pay phones, they still have typewriters in the precinct office) but also show how much the city has changed in a short time.
SVU is less a story of the city, but it is a story of how society’s attitudes to sex crimes have evolved. At times it has had an educational stance (explaining to the audience that date rape is a crime, for instance). Hargitay has become an activist, establishing the Joyful Heart Foundation to support victims, and campaigning for the issue of untested rape kits. When another female detective (Amanda Rollins, played by Kelli Giddish) joined the show in 2011, the discussion broadened to workplace sexual harassment and how women negotiate male spaces.
The show’s producers have promised that this year it will address the “Defund the Police” moment (rather tricky needle to thread for a show about police). But this is a show that also stars Ice-T, who had a hit with “Cop Killer”, so….. Arguments against copaganda are trickier on a show where literally every villain is a rapist. (And it has already been renewed for several seasons, so I’m sure they’ll make it work).