Dun-Dun. If you’ve ever watched Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, you know the sound. I’m not really sure what the sound represents, but it definitely hints that some heinous crime is about to go down, and some perpetrator (“the perp” if you’ve watched more than five episodes) is going to be pursued by Olivia Benson and her sidekicks.
As the show, a staple of my childhood, enters its 20th season on September 27, making it tied
for the longest running scripted live-action television series, I’m reminded of why it has continued to capture millions of television lovers.
Although in many ways I was probably too young when I started watching SVU, it became a bonding experience between myself, my older brother and my father. To this day, I still look forward to catching up on episodes when we all make it home for the holidays. Either way, talk to anyone with older siblings and they probably started watching shows earlier than most.
SVU follows a precinct in New York City as they investigate the various “sexually based offenses, child abuse and crimes against the elderly.” Now before you quickly shake your head and say “no thank you, not my cup of tea,” hear me out. SVU is more than a crime and court drama. There’s a reason it’s the only surviving member of the flagship franchise created by director Dick Wolf 28 years ago.
In the midst of the thrilling drama and three different male leads over the course of the 20 season, one thing has remained constant — my hero Olivia Benson, portrayed by Mariska Hargitay. Olivia began the series as a detective before eventually working her way up to serve as lieutenant somewhere around episode 370 (out of 434 and counting). She is a female icon in a boys world, craftily navigating the politics of the criminal justice system and motivated by her own history as a sex crime victim.
Beyond Benson’s central presence, the show follows a series of characters — primarily detectives, as well as members of the prosecutor’s office and occasionally even past victims — as they try to navigate relationships, careers and the stress that the high-pressure job presents. These complex characters are often cleverly interwoven within the plot, moving to the forefront of the story. My favorites are probably Fin Tutuola and John Munch, so dear to me that have have pledged to someday have dogs named Fin and Munch (of course my first daughter will be named Olivia).
Another central character of the story is the City of New York. Through the years the show has introduced its viewers to dozens of neighborhoods and many ethnic traditions that intersect in the city. My brother has lived in Harlem for two years and when we visit I frequently recognize scenes from SVU.
With every character who leaves or moral dilemma that arises, I’m reminded that this drama, marred by tragedy and evil, also embodies hope. The plots, often ripped from the headlines, portray characters eager to deliver justice and defend the defenseless. Yes, it’s probably all for the sake of viewer ratings, but it keeps me coming back.
This show has become more than a good binge watch to me. It’s what I turned to when I was home sick for a week and a half in the seventh grade. It’s what sparked one of my closest friendships during my freshman year at Notre Dame. It’s what I forced my Notre Dame friends who visited me over the summer to watch, attempting, to no avail, to get them hooked before the new season airs at the end of the month.
Unlike most other dramas, where the function of the show is to simply entertain and get lost in the mess of other people’s lives, SVU is a puzzle, constantly keeping viewers wondering who the suspect is or what legal loophole might be uncovered.
You might be thinking that’s all great, but 19 seasons it too tall a task to try to complete in a lifetime, much less two weeks. Don’t be intimidated. Although the show follows a sequential order of events, each episode exists in a vacuum, with the character development serving as background continuity.
Give it a try and clear your calendar for September 27. I’ll be tuning in to watch some of my favorite characters reunite to restore some good in the world. Hope to see you there.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.