As a relative newcomer to the dauntingly copious Law & Order universe - this reviewer started watching the original series' first season (1990-1991) about a year ago - I was curious how one of its five spin-offs, three of which are still in prime time, compared. To my surprise, Law & Order - Special Victims Unit (11 - Year Eleven - '09/'10 Season), is almost exactly the same show it was 20 years ago. Stylistically and format-wise it's nearly a clone of the series that inspired it, and though in terms of content Special Victims Unit, SVU for short, is more melodramatic, slightly less believable, and dominated by wholly fictional storylines (unlike Law & Order, at least initially, whose teleplays were often "ripped from yesterday's headlines"), it's still an above average police procedural.
Universal's five-disc DVD set has no extras but the shows themselves, in 16:9 enhanced widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround, look and sound great.
A quick summary for the uninitiated: Created by Dick Wolf (whose "howl" logo is seen at the end of every episode) Law & Order began in 1990 as a kind of modern-day Arrest & Trial, with more or less the first-half the show devoted to the investigation of a crime in New York City, followed by the prosecution of the charged by other characters in the second-half. The series was gritty and realistic, filmed on the (initially) pre-gentrified streets of Manhattan and New York's other boroughs. That landmark series lasted 20 seasons, the longest of any cop show.
The success of Law & Order gave birth to a multi-million-dollar franchise, which includes video games and at least three foreign television adaptations (e.g., Law & Order: UK). The first spin-off was Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999-present), followed by Law and Order: Criminal Intent (2001-present), Law & Order: Trial by Jury (2005-2006), and Conviction (2006). Law & Order: Los Angeles debuted this season.
This dizzying Law & Order empire has resulted in much cross-pollination. Dann Florek, who plays Captain Don Cragen, was a member of Law & Order's ensemble cast during that series' first three seasons, while on SVU Richard Belzer, as Det. John Munch, is playing the same character he essayed on a completely unrelated series, Homicide: Life on the Street.
Typical of contemporary hour-long dramas, SVU is an ensemble piece with eight major cast members, though Christopher Meloni as Det. Elliot Stabler and Mariska Hargitay as Det. Olivia Benson, she nowadays bearing a remarkable resemblance to her famous mother, Jayne Mansfield, dominate the show's scripts. They must be popular, too. According to TV Guide they earn the highest salaries for a television drama, each pulling in $400,000 per episode. That can't help SVU's budget.
Other regulars include Ice-T as Det. "Fin" Tutuola, B.D. Wong as psychiatrist Dr. George Huang, Tamara Tunie as medical examiner Dr. Melinda Warner, and Stephanie March as Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cabot. March doesn't appear until the season's fifth episode, and in those early episodes her function on the series is filled by guest star Christine Lahti, memorable as a bitchy advocate.*
The series follows a tried-and-true formula, but it's one that has worked for more than two decades. Unlike its more subtle and often ambiguous predecessor, most of the SVU episodes I watched stuck to a format with clockwork-like precision. During Act I there's a bit of misdirection toward a prime suspect that turns out to be innocent. (The detectives badger this suspect mercilessly but rarely apologize when they're proved wrong. This is because the suspect is almost always a sleaze-ball guilty of some other moral offense.) By the 20:00 mark the true felon is identified, though making the charge stick is often the crux of the drama.
With its Special Victims Unit subtitle you'd think the show would be grounded more as a humanist, victims rights advocacy type series, and maybe it was when it began. By season 11, however, SVU is more about bringing heinous wife-beaters, child molesters, racists, etc. to justice, come Hell or high water. The show walks a very fine line between legitimately exploring dramatic fact-based situations and tasteless exploitation, and too often paints its criminals and victims in stark black and white, as if to whip its audience into lynch-mob outrage. But it's also too intelligent for that; SVU walks a fine line, yes, but rarely completely trips over into the muck.
Occasionally SVU's scripts even have a little social conscious meat, though these are always subservient to story. In "Users," for instance, Dr. Huang risks his career to provide a desperate heroin addict with Ibogaine, an effective but technically illegal and unapproved treatment in the U.S. - illegal, Huang says, because the patent has expired and drug companies stand to make bigger bucks pushing less-effective but more lucrative addiction treatments. Unfortunately, thought-provoking storylines like these tend to be pushed into the background.
The season touts some major guest stars, including Robert Klein, Stephen Rea, Jessica Walter, John Cullum, Rosie Perez, Lindsay Crouse, Jeri Ryan, John Larroquette, John Schuck, Kathy Griffin, Lena Olin, Jaclyn Smith, Ann-Margret, Renée Taylor, Susan Anton, Sharon Stone (several episodes), Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, David Paymer, Alex Kingston, and Isabelle Huppert.
Video & Audio
Its 24 episodes, averaging about 41-and-a-half minutes apiece, are presented over five single-sided, dual-layered discs, four-to-five episodes per. The 16:9 enhanced widescreen series looks great on big screen TVs, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is up to contemporary standards. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are included as an option. There are no Extra Features.
Though not quite as good as the show that inspired its production, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit holds its own as slickly-made, involving drama. Recommended.
* Lahti is an undervalued actress and a personal favorite since she starred in Bill Forsyth's remarkable Housekeeping (1987). However, on SVU Lahti unaccountably looks, well, very strange, as if assaulted by a team of inept plastic surgeons.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Tora-san DVD boxed set, is on sale now.