Like any long running show, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit hit a rough patch four or five years back. As I discussed with David, this coincided (more or less) with the departure of Diane Neal as ADA Casey Novak. The balance shifted from psychotic children and human trafficking to the detectives’ personal lives and Captain Cragen often getting suspended for the team’s shenanigans. The stories tended to be stale with no batshit crazy-go-nuts episodes that informed the earlier years. The metaphor had been beaten by an image that denotes age.
On the show, this loss of direction was evident by the its inability to find a permanent replacement for Novak — eventually the problem becoming an in-story punchline. Actors like Michaela McManus, Harry Connick Jr., Melissa Sagemiller, Christine Lahti and even Stephanie March and Diane Neal reprising their roles couldn’t get traction with the courtroom portion of the show.
Well, except for one all-too brief moment when the show blazed red-hot again:
Then came the departures. Tamara Tunie as ME Warner went from being a regular back to recurring. B.D. Wong left the show to become a FBI psychologist on another show on another network. The biggest of these losses, of course, was Christopher Meloni and his Elliot Stabler.
While the Law & Order format is fairly resilient to actor turnover, SVU was generally regarded as the exception. Meloni and co-start Mariska Hargitay were able to use the audience’s affection for Stabler and Benson to strong-arm notoriously cheap creator Dick Wolf into better paydays every time their contracts came up for renewal. This time, though … who knows, maybe Meloni noticed how often they were making the same five episodes and thought it was time to move on? Better pay and new material on a vampire show? Yeah, I guess I’d make that move, too.
Wolf responded by hiring two new actors onto the show and utilizing Linus Roache’s ADA Michael Cutter from the Original Recipe to keep the show from hemorrhaging fans. He also came to an agreement with Hargitay, allowing her to appear in 13 episodes.
The gambit worked as the show is still on the air when all other Law & Order programs died away.
I have no idea how well this worked out from a story perspective because I’ve only watched the first episode of season 13 to learn how they dealt with Stabler’s departure. I let the rest go assuming that this would soon be the end. My review unit column was done, revealing the best, worst, and some contenders to the throne. Why would I need more SVU?
And then I innocently watched a recent episode called “Legitimate Rape” and it all came around. The episode concerns a female sportscaster assaulted by her cameraman (played by David Marciano, you might remember him as the slimy Billings on The Shield). Over the course of the episode, the cameraman uses his understanding of the legal system to destroy her and get partial custody of the child that was conceived during the attack. Forced to hand over the child, the sportscaster flees to Canada with the help of Olivia Benson. In the last seconds of the episode, I realized the writing staff tricked me into liking an episode in which Olivia breaks the rules because she’s a product of rape herself.
That is nothing short of actual magic.
If you’ve been through the Bottom Five, you know my thoughts on episodes that feature A.) Olivia breaking the rules and B.) using her past as a justification. For once, someone on SVU found a way to make it work. Seeing that, I figured something must have changed and opened a Hulu Plus account to get caught up on the current season.
I’m not sure who came from where and who’s writing what, but it seems with the implosion of the Law & Order brand, the best minds from the other shows converged on the last show standing and rethought how to make it.
Like the short-lived Los Angeles, the show now features a free mixture of Original Recipe, Criminal Intent (episodes now occasionally feature scenes from the perp’s point of view) and the character-based connections of SVU. It helps as the format now has room to stretch as the plot demands. Where a recent psychotic kid episode could’ve come straight from season 4, a subsequent episode in which an Afghanistan vet has PTSD induced flashbacks actually makes fine use of the flashback trope that would normally break an episode.
In replacing Stabler, Wolf found actor Danny Pino. I have no idea if he had a rough first year, but his Detective Nick Amaro is quite likable enough now, showing a lot of the same dedication as a character that Stabler possessed. Wolf also hired Kelly Giddish in anticipation of replacing Hargitay and I’m actually impressed with her as an actor and the character, Detective Amanda Rollins. She has a few reoccurring problems, a gambling debt and a crazy sister, but they’ve been utilized to good effect. The crazy sister even lead to an Internal Affairs episode that didn’t suck.
It’s almost like the writers took my Bottom Five as a challenge. If they deliver a good countdown episode, I’ll buy them some steaks.
The show also found a solid ADA in the form of Rafael Barba, played by Raúl Esparza. He’s kind of shifty, like Cutter or Carver from Criminal Intent , he finds amazing loopholes to get what he wants, like Cabot, he’s even kind of a hardass like McCoy. One episode even features an amazing callback to the Original Recipe as Sparza charges a school with conspiracy in order to ferret out some rapists.
Really, what SVU has managed to do this year is prepare for the inevitable departure of Mariska Hargitay. Though she returned to full-time status this year, nothing lasts forever. It seems that Wolf and his team accept that reality now and made SVU respond to that greatest of threats. It now stands as a viable program for, at least, another few years. While we’re just talking about a silly, often overwrought network television cop drama, it’s admirable to see a production regroup in the face of cast turnover and the realities of a shifting TV marketplace. Companies and organizations of all stripes fail to pivot as successfully and perhaps there is something of value in the example.
Also, that psychotic kid episode from this season was the bee’s proverbial knees.
Lesson Learned: Any show can resuscitate itself with the right mix of new characters, new writers, and a very old format.