What is “SVU”?

“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” – often simply “SVU” – is an NBC crime drama series created by Wolf Entertainment, Dick Wolf’s production company. It is the first spin-off of “Law & Order” and starred Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay, who play Detective Elliot Stabler and Detective Olivia Benson respectively. In 2011, Christopher’s character was written out of the show after 12 seasons. Olivia Benson was originally Elliot’s partner in the New York City Police Department; she was later promoted to Captain.

Christopher’s role was reprised in a 2021 spin-off series, “Law & Order: Organized Crime”, which follows a similar style to the original series and bases some episodes on real crime stories that received media attention.

“SVU” premiered in September 1999, and became the longest-running primetime US live-action series in history as of September 2019, when season 21 aired. As the original series wrapped up in 2010, “SVU” also became the only live-action primetime series to debut in the 1990s and remain in production – it’s aired 500 original episodes as of October 2021 and currently ranks fourth behind “The Simpsons”, “Gunsmoke”, and “Lassie”, which have aired between 730 and 595 episodes.

The show has so far been nominated for 91 awards and won 33. In 2006, Mariska became the first regular cast member of the “Law & Order” franchise to win an Emmy Award, taking home an accolade in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series category.

Premise & Characters

“SVU” is based out of the NYPD’s 16th precinct in Manhattan. The detectives of the SVU investigate sexually oriented crimes such as domestic violence, rape, and child sexual abuse, as well as non-sexual crimes involving disabled, elderly, and underaged victims. Various episodes also touch on the societal and political issues linked to sexual preferences, equality rights, and gender identity. The fictional unit works closely with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, and many storylines in the show are based on famous real-life crimes – some details are often changed.

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The show was originally focused on Elliot, a seasoned unit veteran who has seen it all, and Olivia who joined after her harrowing past as the daughter of a rape victim. Their right-hand men were Detective John Munch and his first partner, Brian Cassidy. John was transferred from Baltimore’s homicide unit, while Brian was his eager young understudy. Detectives Monique Jeffries and Ken Briscoe also supported the detective teams.

Brian was transferred to the narcotics division after 13 episodes, as he was unable to work on many of the cases due to their similarities to his childhood abuse. Consequently, Monique and John were paired up and Ken was slowly phased out. Season two saw Monique leave the unit, and John pair up with Detective Odafin Tutuola. Detective Chester Lake became a series regular during its ninth season, but soon left after murdering a cop who had got away with rape.

Captain Donald Cragen oversaw the team from seasons one to 15, having previously worked as the commanding officer of the homicide precinct in New York. FBI Special Agent Dr. George Huang also assisted the SVU, profiling criminals and providing the detectives with some much-needed mental support. Dr. Melinda Warner, the resident medical examiner, also became an integral part of the team and contributed to its high success rate in closing cases.

In season two, the unit received a full-time Assistant District Attorney named Alexandra Cabot, who was almost killed in season five and entered the Witness Protection Program; her replacement, Casey Novak, was the ADA until the end of season nine. When Casey was censured for violating procedures while trying to bring a rapist cop to justice, she was temporarily replaced by Kim Greylek until Alexandra returned.

Other ADAs to date include Peter Stone, Dominick Carisi Jr., Sonya Paxton, Jo Marlowe, and Gillian Hardwicke. Sonya was brutally murdered, but left vital evidence behind to ensure that the culprit was convicted. Rafael Barba was also the prosecutor for the SVU, but left temporarily in season 19 after the death of an infant.

Olivia and Rafael

Although the focus of “SVU” are the heinous crimes which the unit must resolve, the dynamic between Olivia and Rafael has been the topic of much discussion. Olivia is currently the unit’s commanding officer, whereas Rafael is the ADA for the Sex Crimes Bureau. In a particularly tense episode, Olivia cut Rafael off when the latter agreed to represent Richard Wheatley, a man accused of murdering Elliot Stabler’s wife.

Things changed drastically when Elliot approached Olivia, saying: “You’re denying. You’re deflecting. You defend Elliot… It’s what you do when you love somebody unconditionally.” He also told Olivia that he’d be waiting for her when she was ready, but it remains unclear if Olivia will allow Rafael to re-enter her life.

Viewers suggest that by mentioning Olivia’s desire to defend Elliot, Rafael tried to get her to open up and confess her feelings. Olivia was frustrated at Elliot defending Richard, believing that it was a priority to defend victims and prosecute the guilty. Many “SVU” fans were also surprised at Elliot’s feelings towards Olivia, as they had always acted more like best friends than potential love interests; in fact, some said that a romance between the two would make them quit watching the show entirely.

Rafael and Olivia both had traumatic childhoods which they have glossed over throughout the seasons. Things become more complicated when taking into account that Olivia has had feelings for Elliot for a long time, with Mariska herself saying on “The Drew Barrymore Show”: “The energy’s there. Olivia’s been in love with him for many a year.”

As Elliot and Olivia no longer work together, it’s easier for them to pursue a possible relationship. There’s a lot to unpack regarding Olivia’s complicated love life, which fans will hopefully see in the next episodes of “SVU”.

Production & Development

Dick Wolf was inspired to write “Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die”, one of the first episodes of “SVU”, by the grisly 1986 case of Robert Chambers, who strangled and killed the woman he was dating in Manhattan’s Central Park. While writing later episodes, Dick wished to further explore the role of human sexuality into the psychology of crimes.

December 8th last Kelli Giddish's episode on SVU.

Posted by Law & Order SVU Fans on Thursday, December 1, 2022

The show was originally entitled “Sex Crimes”, but producers were concerned that the original “Law & Order” franchise would be negatively affected if the new show received poor reviews. Director Ted Kotcheff also wanted the new series to not depend on the original for success, whereas Dick thought that having “Law & Order” in the title would boost its commercial value and viewing figures. As Barry Diller, the then-head of Studios USA, was concerned about the title, it was changed to “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”.

By the 12th season of “SVU”, Mariska and Christopher’s success as Olivia and Elliot had made them some of the highest-paid lead drama actors in the industry, allegedly earning almost $400,000 per episode. At the time, news outlets claimed that Hugh Laurie of “House” was the only actor earning more per episode than the dynamic duo. In season 17, Mariska’s salary was reportedly increased to a staggering $500,000 per episode.

Many of the show’s exterior scenes are filmed throughout the five boroughs of New York City. When producers were searching for a place to film interior scenes, there were no suitable studio spaces nearby, and so chose a space in NBC’s Central Archives building, located in North Bergen, New Jersey. The stage area had been unused for a long time, and measured 53,000 square feet, or almost 5,000 square meters. For years, the building was used for the courtroom and police station scenes, but the production team left New Jersey in 2010, when Governor Chris Christie suspended the tax credits for film and television production for the following fiscal year.

Shocking Storylines

Faithful “SVU” fans would be hard-pressed to pick their favorite episodes. Over the years, the show has had some jaw-dropping storylines and plot twists designed to keep the audience on the edge of their seats: here, we rank the best episodes according to fans.

The third episode of season seven, “911”, has been critically acclaimed, and won Mariska her first Emmy Award. The episode begins with Olivia receiving a 911 call from a young girl who claims to have been abducted and trapped alone in a room. Some of the SVU detectives are skeptical, and think that the call is part of an elaborate hoax, but as the girl continues to share information, Olivia discovers that she’s seen the girl before, as a potential victim in a child pornography case.

Olivia and the rest of the SVU discover that the girl was sold by a sex trafficker years before. The FBI aids them in their rescue mission, but while on the phone, the girl is caught by her kidnapper. Although the episode has a happy ending and the girl safely returns to her parents, the tense situation enraptured viewers.

Next on the list is “Loot”, the fourth episode of season five. When an undercover federal agent investigating a Colombian drug cartel is raped and brutally murdered, it doesn’t take detectives long to find the guilty party, Rafael Zapata. Although prosecuting a cartel member is a potentially deadly business, ADA Alexandra Cabot is determined to see justice served.

Nevertheless, the FBI takes the case away from her when she begins receiving death threats, and becomes a target of other intimidation tactics. When Alexandra is almost taken out in an assassination attempt orchestrated by the ruthless cartel, she must say goodbye to the SVU, making the episode particularly bittersweet.

Detectives were sent down a rabbit hole by a teenaged rape victim in “Undercover”, the 15th episode of season nine. When a young woman is examined and her rape kit disappears shortly afterwards, the leading detectives begin suspecting that a law enforcement worker is involved and covering up the crime. The plot thickens when it’s revealed that the young woman’s mother is currently behind bars, and that the victim is being threatened by a guard at the jail.

The corrections officer becomes the prime suspect in the case, and Olivia is sent on an undercover assignment to the woman’s prison where the victim’s mother is serving her sentence. Olivia’s life is further endangered when the girl’s mother dies under mysterious circumstances, and it becomes clearer and clearer that the killer is making sure that nobody talks.

Cynthia Nixon of “Sex and the City” fame showcased her acting skills in the season nine premiere of “SVU”, guest starring as Janis Donovan, a woman suffering from dissociative identity disorder. When Janis appears on the SVU’s radar as they fear that she is abusing her daughter, her doctor steps in and slows the investigation down. Throughout the episode, Janis’s other personalities – including a vicious one that is allegedly responsible for multiple murders – soon reveal themselves.

SVU finds that they may have bitten off more than they can chew with Janis, as her ability to stand trial is questioned after one of her personas violently attacks the ADA. Meanwhile, the entire department is dealing with changes following Captain Cragen’s reassignment.

The close relationship between Olivia and Elliot reaches its breaking point in “Fault”, one of the last episodes in season seven. Both detectives take on a gruesome case in which a convicted sex offender kills an entire family and abducts a young girl, following his release from prison; after chasing the suspect to a train station, Olivia and Elliot witness the suspect use the girl as a human shield.

Olivia is injured during the tense stand-off, and Elliot, who is concerned for her wellbeing, misses his opportunity to catch the suspect. The two detectives are force to re-evaluate their professional and personal relationship due to the effects it’s having on their work life.

“SVU” is currently in its 24th season, and boasts millions of fans around the world. Although there will be no new episodes from mid-to-late December 2022, the series returns to screens in January 2023, following a brief hiatus over the Christmas-New Year period.

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