On Thursday, the 435th episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit will descend upon a TV near you. This marks the iconic show’s 20th season — that’s two full decades of “dun-duns.”
Since its September 1999 spin-off from Dick Wolf’s now-defunct Law & Order, SVU has become not only the franchise’s longest-running series but a cultural institution in its own right. The crackly crime drama has nabbed more than 30 awards, from Emmys to Golden Globes to NAACP Image Awards, as well as the bizarre distinction of “best show to fall asleep to.”
But the show’s soothingly formulaic rhythms can’t be the only reason for its staying power. Looking back, its willingness to tackle taboo topics around sexual assault (on primetime television, no less) is, arguably, pioneering. It helped normalize the discussion of sex crimes — though it glamorizes them as well. And as we grapple with these issues on a broader scale in the #MeToo era, SVU may be more relevant than ever before.
As Season 20 kicked off (the premiered September 27th), Rolling Stone spoke with SVU’s stars and writers, as well as sexual assault counselors and survivors, about the show’s impact — for better and worse — on the cultural conversation surrounding sex crimes.
Mariska Hargitay, who has played SVU’s strong and sympathetic heroine, Lieutenant Olivia Benson, from the very first episode, sees the show as a longtime force for positive change. “SVU had the vision, from the beginning, to venture into a territory that most people shied away from,” she tells Rolling Stone via email. “When it started 20 years ago, these conversations about rape, domestic abuse, sexual harassment and child abuse just weren’t happening. … The calculus is, of course, not that simple or linear, but I know that the show is embedded in many people’s thinking around these issues.”
Michael Chernuchin, SVU’s current showrunner and executive producer, concurs. “We like to think that SVU’s place in pop culture contributed to the positive change we’re seeing today,” Chernuchin says by email. “The public’s perception of sex crimes is changing. … More victims feel they can speak out, more men are getting help instead of coping alone, and offenders are being held accountable for their actions.”
In the public’s view, Hargitay has become nearly indistinguishable from her character, Lt. Benson (a character who was herself conceived from rape). But it wasn’t until she landed that role and began receiving letters from survivors that Hargitay developed an understanding of the unrelenting trauma that often accompanies sexual assault. “At first, I was overwhelmed,” she says. “Many survivors were disclosing their abuse [to me] for the first time, and many shared how the show had given them a new strength, the will to fight for their own justice, or simply the community of shared experience.”
This realization prompted her to found the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004, with the aim to “transform society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse and support survivors’ healing.” She also produced this year’s HBO documentary I Am Evidence, which showcased the human faces behind the astonishing backlog of 200,000 untested rape kits currently rotting away in American police facilities. (Vice President Joe Biden appeared in a 2016 episode of SVU to draw attention to the problem.)
Behind the scenes, show insiders say they’re careful to present the show’s difficult narratives with sensitivity. Chernuchin notes that his staff consults with former NYPD and SVU detectives, forensics experts, psychiatrists and ex-assistant district attorneys while crafting episodes. Warren Leight, the showrunner from 2011 to 2016, says his writers did extensive research before attempting to dramatize traumatic crimes. When he was brought on in Season 13, the sudden departure of star Christopher Meloni in a contract dispute had left the show at a dramatic crossroads. Leight chose to push SVU in a different direction, ushering in a period known as “SVU 2.0”. “I thought it had gone as far as it could go with odd stories and kinks, so I chose to focus more on the emotional toll on detectives, victims and their family members,” he says. To tell these more nuanced stories, “we talked to a lot of victims and survivors,” Leight says.
Sarah Storm, a New York actor who played the character Bronwyn Freed for five episodes during this time (Seasons 15 and 17), says she took note of staffers’ behind-the-scenes commitment to “spark empathy around issues of sexual violence.” She continues via email: “Working on the show changed the way I looked at what television can do to highlight the prevalence of sexual violence, and to combat it. As an example, before we shot [the episode] ‘Psycho/Therapist,’ I wasn’t aware that rapists sometimes choose to represent themselves in hopes of facing (and presumably further terrorizing) their victims in court.”
The show’s impact on real-life survivors, meanwhile, is mixed, as “every survivor of sexual violence responds differently,” says Christopher Bromson, Executive Director of NYC’s Crime Victims Treatment Center. But, he adds, it can be a useful aid in a viewer’s identifying or processing a sex crime. “For some people, shows like SVU are helpful because it can help them categorize: ‘Wait a second. What happened to me looked like that, and that’s a crime.’” (In fact, a 2015 Washington State University study found that college students who watched shows from the Law & Order franchise were better educated about rape and sexual consent than those who watched CSI or NCIS.)
Writer Virginia Pelley says SVU helped her process long-buried feelings about her own childhood abuse. “I found it cathartic once I realized that I was feeling for the victims and crying for them, but in therapy…I couldn’t cry for myself,” she says via email. Though Pelley doesn’t love the way the show “uses sexual assault as a dramatic vehicle,” she appreciates its take on underreported issues like languishing rape kits. “I’ve seen enough empowering characters and episodes that I forgive SVU when they fuck up, for the most part.”
Those fuck-ups often have to do with the fact that show is, after all, a show. Like most procedurals, SVU is beholden to a narrative formula. In fact, part of the reason it feels so eerily comforting is because it serves as a sort of parallel universe where victims of unspeakable crimes are believed and often find justice. Of course, that’s not how things unfold for most real-life survivors, many of whom never report their attacks at all. Anastasiya Gorodilova, Senior Coordinator of Systems & Training at the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, expresses dismay at SVU’s focus on the criminal legal system as the predominant pathway to closure for survivors. “It glorifies that option without exploring the retraumatizing situations that can arise from reporting to law enforcement,” she explains. “I’ve been troubled by how Benson will strongly encourage a survivor to make a formal report, using language like ‘You don’t want them doing this to anyone else.’ But it’s not the victim’s fault if a perpetrator does it again.”
“We see these very tightly done investigations [on SVU],” says Bromson. “It immediately moves over to the district attorney’s office, and we see the DAs treating the survivor really well. Things move quickly and there’s a resolution.”
For many who report a sex crime, things play out far less seamlessly, as Brooklyn-based Alison Turkos discovered when she reported to the NYPD’s Special Victims Division last year. “My experience has been nothing but horrific,” Turkos says. “The show gives this false idea that [the detectives] immediately care about you. They rush through the doors and the wind is blowing in their hair, like, ‘Something traumatic just happened to this victim. Do you need water? Do you want a can of soda? What can I do for you?’ And that doesn’t happen. I literally had to be escorted by four officers from the bed where I had my forensic kit done to … the back of a police car, like I was a criminal.”
Turkos hopes viewers will watch the show with the covert understanding that it’s a “double-edged sword” that’s “both actively participating in rape culture and bringing it into primetime [as conversation fodder].”
SVU’s take on the standard women-in-danger story line — a primetime staple since Dragnet moved from radio to TV in 1951 — “has inherent drama,” according to Jennifer L. Pozner, media critic and author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV. “Watching something that reinforces many people’s deepest fears will get a guaranteed audience.”
Media representation matters. It plays into how we see the world and our place in it. Seeing graphic depictions of crimes against women played out over and over again — even if the victims eventually find justice — can do a number on the psyche, says Pozner. “Many viewers … start to internalize the notion that sexual violence is inevitable,” she explains. “Even though you’re saying on the surface, through Benson, ‘This isn’t your fault,’ [the show is often] saying through every other character… that it actually is the victim’s fault, because why did she go to this place, or why did she trust that guy, or why did she wear that [outfit]?”
But the biggest problem Pozner sees with SVU is what she calls “a bait and switch between text and subtext.” In other words, the victims’-rights spin that stars and execs slap on the franchise does not always comport with its underlying messages. “[They use] nice progressive language so they can feel good about themselves,” Pozner says. “But the subtext comes through in cinematography choices. In the beginning of each episode, before the ‘dun-dun,’ there’s always a shot where you see the assault or you see the aftermath of the assault in a very lurid way.”
“The camera angles focus on close-ups of eyes and mouths in trauma, pain, and fear,” she continues. “The dress that’s ripped so it’s sexy, though it’s also supposed to be scary — this is not the way sexual assaults should be filmed if you want to portray sexual assaults as a problem. This is the way sexual assault is filmed if you want to portray it as titillating.”
Still, Pozner praises Olivia Benson’s character as someone “who mostly…believes victims and who regularly tries to get DAs to take victims seriously.” (Turkos jokes that “Olivia could’ve solved [my case] in 60 minutes, including commercial.”)
Hargitay, who is now directing and producing for SVU as well as acting, notes that the show’s writers today are “more determined than ever, not only to authentically reflect events, but also to represent current cultural attitudes and how they can add layers of complexity” into issues like rape culture, affirmative consent, victim blaming and more.
Bromson of the Crime Victims Treatment Center chalks up society’s increased propensity for talking about these subjects to campaigns like the #MeToo movement, as well as, yes, SVU: “The tone is different than it was even 10 years ago in terms of discussing sexual violence, victimization, or trauma. [SVU] has some hits; they have some misses. But overall, I think it has done a magnificent job of bringing sexual violence into the public discourse.”