|Trial Part 2: In Defense of SVU
By Brittany Frederick
I'm seeing the same press from the public over Law & Order: Special Victims Unit ever since the series debuted - it's weak, it's raw, it's unpolished, doesn't fit the mold, needs a lawyer, needs this, needs that, has too much of this, not like the original, et cetera. What bothers me most is that a large helping of this undeserved negativity comes from fans of the original Law & Order. You would think that they most would realize what everyone needs to know about SVU: It is not Law & Order, Part 2. It is Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a series with as much charm, poise, eloquence and punch as the original, an hour's time earmarked with the strong acting, character and backdrop that makes it a great show no matter if it has Law & Order in front of it or not.
I think that with the Law & Order prefix in front of the series title, everyone expects something from SVU. They expect it to be in the same half-and-half form as the original, have the same types of characters, conform to the same style because it has the same series name, because it is a "sequel" or "spinoff" series from the original. This is what makes for negative press, because it is not only incorrect, it has really nothing to do with SVU at all. It must be clarified what the Law & Order prefix stands for: that the series takes place in that continuity, meaning that the series can interface with characters and events from the original. It doesn't mean that it is a cookie-cutter of the original, and anyone who comes to the series expecting that will be soured, because SVU has a unique flavor all its own. It's not Law & Order Lite but Special Victims Unit, and realizing that might lend a hand to how the series gets perceived. That is one of the true joys of SVU: that while retaining some of the great features of Law & Order, it branches out with something different and all its own.
That's not to say that SVU isn't part L&O, because if it wasn't, it wouldn't have the name in front of it, and it would definitely lose a little sparkle and hype. It has the same black cards that tell you where you are, the trademark boink sound between scenes, the similar opening narration and the new jazz twist on the old film-noir theme, the same opening credits style, the same end credits style, some of the same characters. It has enough of the borrowed stuff to make any L&O fan feel comfortable with a new show couched in an old universe. The trick to that sentence, though, is "new."
A show has to be very exceptional -- or certain elements of it very intriguing -- to earn a regular spot on my viewing schedule, meaning that if I'm not watching when it's on, I definitely have it on tape. Very few shows have ever, ever earned that distinction. Being the television junkie that I am, I've refined my tastes over the years. Classic L&O is on the list, so is 100 Centre St. on Mondays (only for the acting talents of Joseph Lyle Taylor, not the contrivances - fans of the much more elite L&O would cry laughing, as I did), Dark Angel on Tuesdays, The West Wing on Wednesdays, Sports Night on Thursdays and Fridays, and Special Victims Unit on Fridays. The first such show - the show that made the schedule - was a little show called Homicide: Life on the Street, the best show ever to have aired on television, period. Ironically, Special Victims Unit now resides in Homicide's time slot, and I follow it faithfully, not just because Richard Belzer has made the crossover from one show to the other.
Where to start? Admittedly, some of the recent changes made to SVU have, in my eyes, diminished quality, but I still watch, because so many delights are still intact. I love lots of things, from the new sound of the old theme to the changed opening narration.
The acting especially has drawn my attention. Christopher Meloni makes a very believable detective, a man of both power and conviction. One needs only to watch the episode in which he has a deft verbal tango with Eric Roberts - his most powerful performance to date - and that will settle all doubts, from the emotional inflection in his voice to the look in his eyes and the very way that he moves. Meloni has exceptional chemistry with Mariska Hargitay, who I have heard panned over and over and I myself enjoy. She is one of my favorite actresses, sharing space with Felicity Huffman, Sabrina Lloyd, and Patricia Tallman. She has both a fire and a charisma, a personality that is vibrant. When writing for my own detective series, Resurrection: Unsolved Crimes Unit, I realized that there were many elements of both Meloni's and Hargitay's performances and characters in two of my leads, Detectives Toby Rayner and Lindsay Merton. I also loved Michelle Hurd as Monique Jeffries (who may or may not be dead, depending on how you interpret the obscure departure of her character) and Dean Winters (who I last saw as a creepy Tom Marans on Homicide) as Brian Cassidy, two recurring characters who were anything but commonly two-dimensional, just like my all-time favorites, the control room regulars from Sports Night. As I expected, it was both a joy and a great honor to have Dann Florek reprising his Captain Cragen role -- and surprising that he would ever go back to work for Dick Wolf again, all things considered. Richard Belzer hits all the right notes again with John Munch, and we even get to learn why he left Baltimore in a nice explanation in the SVU pilot. Each member of the cast has strengths that play to the powerhouse full court press of the whole.
Another brilliancy is that SVU moves from the confines of the original format. Whereas you know that someone must be arrested by the end of the first half hour on the original L&O, you don't know that here. You don't even know if someone will be arrested, period. It was (read: was) also nice that you didn't have a lawyer. If you wanted to see a lawyer, you could watch the original. But if you wanted just detective drama, that was what you had. (Since the addition of Stephanie March in the second season, this isn't really true anymore -- the writers contrive ways to squeeze in her flat character in hopes of placating fans of the original series -- but it was true, once. Admittedly, I don't dislike March's Cabot as much as I used to, thanks to her turn with Khandi Alexander.) Truthfully, you don't get to see the conviction or acquittal, but those of us with even an inkling of imagination or cunning can guess whether or not Benson and Stabler will have pegged their man or woman.
The city and the plots are just as vibrant as the original, and here we get a healthy glimpse into the characters' personal lives. Tracy Pollan's two turns on the series rank as two of my favorites, as does Meloni's tour de force and Hargitay's spotlight episode in which she battles a stalker. SVU doesn't seem to be falling into the "crooked friend" and other plot repeats that the original has every once in a while.
This is why you can't call Special Victims Unit a spinoff series or a copycat or a clone -- it is not. It has parts of Law & Order but it is uniquely its own. And it's time for people to stop judging this series based on the beginning of the title and more as an entity on its own. They might understand it better that way, and what's more, they might even come to appreciate it.
I'm not so hot on the as-yet-developing Law & Order: Criminal Intent, which is set to star Vincent D'Onofrio (who proved his dramatic worth in the Homicide tour de force "The Subway" as living victim John Lange), which is a plus, and Kyra Sedgwick (someone I, personally, find irritable and still hate from her turn on the brief, talentless comedy Talk to Me, which even displaced my beloved Sports Night for a month during its' final season on ABC). I can take D'Onofrio, and even with pleasure, but stomaching Sedgwick is another matter. We'll have to see how the series develops. Of course, all this rumination doesn't mean a thing. I'll still be watching this new L&O at least once, and treating it the same way I treat SVU: as a unique, different, and exemplary series of its own type, with its own plots, characters and style, in the same universe as Law & Order, but not to be held to any of its regulations.