Law and Order: Special Victims Unit established itself quickly and intelligently as its own entity, separate and distinct from its famous namesake. Originally conceived as the series Sex Crimes – and unaffiliated with the Law and Order franchise – it ultimately made its way to Dick Wolf, had its name changed, and began its (thus far) successful run. Inspired by its real life counterpoint in New York City and the surrounding boroughs, Special Victims Unit concerns itself with sexually based offenses and, accordingly, consistently finds itself in dark, troubling territory. It also handles such potentially gratuitous (and distasteful) subject matter with a restraint and aplomb that is rare in the current U.S. television climate.
Special Victims Unit is, essentially, an ensemble piece, although its narrative is normally centered around Detectives Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) and Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay). Unafraid to explore characters in a manner not found in Law and Order, Special Victims Unit often probes aspects of the pair's private lives that influences their behavior during – and perspective of – their investigations (Benson herself is the result of a rape; Stabler has a wife and four children). Their cases are almost always unspeakably ugly: rape, murder, molestation, child pornography, etc. Their reactions to what they encounter are laudable for their humanity – the writers wisely shy away from simple indignation or disgust by infusing their characters with multiple shades of responses, emotions, and ethical gray.
The Premiere Episode ("Payback") is, in typical Law and Order fashion, complex and surprising in its concerns and storytelling. A cabbie is discovered brutally stabbed and murdered, sans penis. As the reasoning behind this rather nasty event unfolds, the episode plausibly incorporates elements of war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and one of the key concerns of the series that continues through to this day: sex used a weapon, as violence, and as nothing remotely or simply "sexual" in the traditional sense. Hargitay notes in one of the featurettes included in this release, Special Victims Unit is complex without being complicated. She may be selling the show a little short with that comment, but I think her assessment is generally accurate. Its subject matter is tricky and fraught with ethical considerations, but the program manages to afford the perpetrated, the investigators, and the criminal justice systems the complexity deserved. It also has the courage and tenacity to bestow the perpetrators a multi-layered complexity occasionally as well – all of which is no easy feat.
The Premiere Episode also introduces (or, more accurately, reintroduces) Dann Florek as Capt. Donald Cragen (the original Captain in Law and Order) and Richard Belzer as the acerbic, conspiratorially minded Det. John Munch. (As executive producer Ted Kotcheff notes in one of the featurettes, Munch may be setting some sort of record – his character has appeared in Homicide: Life on the Street, the X-Files, Law and Order, and now Special Victims Unit.) The first season also included Dean Winters (O'Reilly from Oz) as Det. Cassidy and Michelle Hurd as Det. Jefferies, both of whom are featured in the Premier Episode. The episode is, not surprisingly, both compelling and remarkably assured for an initial entry – it handles its primary duties of character exposition and setting of overall tone quite well.
Video: Presented in its original full frame, Special Victims Unit is given a fine transfer. Flesh tones, color saturation, and black levels are solid, and the aggressive graininess and wear of the Super 16 stock of the original series' the First Year release is not to be found. The show boasts high production values, and it certainly looks good. Although this stand alone release is somewhat confounding, the promise of a box set looking this good is encouraging.
Audio: Special Victims Unit is presented with a DD 2.0 stereo mix, and it also well done. Dialogue is crystal clear and easy to hear throughout, and the ambient music used throughout adds a nice texture to the proceedings. There is really nothing much to report in terms of surround activity, but the overall representation remains adequate.
Spanish and French DD 2.0 mixes, as well as English, Spanish, and French subtitles are included.
Extras: Included with this release are a few noteworthy additional features:
Law and Order: Everybody's Favorite Bagman from the First Year (45:00): This is the original episode of Law and Order, presented in its original full frame format. Appearance is grainy and generally poor, although the audio fares a bit better. The pilot, in typically ambitious Law and Order fashion, concerns the shooting of a council member on the take, and the web leads to mob connections, city contracts, and political (including police) involvement. This is a solid episode, although it is marred somewhat by the understandable awkwardness of a first entry (including uncertain characterizations and some atypically cheesy dialogue). The episode features Michael Moriarty, Richard Brooks, George Dzundza, and Chris Noth, and features guest appearances by William H. Macy, Paul Guilfoyle, and the sadly missed Trey Wilson.
Law and Order featurette (22.01): This featurette includes interviews with original cast members Michael Moriarty, Richard Brooks, George Dzundza, Chris Noth, and Dann Florek, as well as executive producer / creator Dick Wolf among others. Wolf notes that he sold the program as essentially two half-hour programs since, at the time, hour long dramas were virtually non-existent on U.S. television. Wolf also comments that the show was originally purchased by Fox and CBS before it was picked up by NBC. The format of the show and its tendency to take on controversial subject matter is also discussed at length, as is the fact that it is shot on location (Wolf notes New York itself it the show's "seventh character" and that its "Bible" is the New York Daily News).
Special Victims Unit: the Beginning (24:22): This featurette includes interviews with Wolf, executive producer Ted Kotcheff, and members of the cast. Kotcheff notes that this series was not initially intended to be a spinoff of Law and Order, and how he formulated brief biographies of Stabler and Benson. It is also noted that Florek was the first actor to be cast in the series, and that Hargitay and Meloni read together in the hallways before auditioning – they hit if off, and their already apparent chemistry is what landed them their roles. Hargitay also comments that what attracted her to the program was its "progressive and provocative" nature.
Dann Florek Squad Room Walk Through: This brief, slightly goofy featurette (5:20) offers a behind-the-scenes look (complete with the requisite "duh-duh!" during cutaways) at the set production of the show's squad room. Florek, an amiable host, takes us around the set, showing personal touches made to the desks and work areas, how the walls are constructed, etc. He also notes how the wall decorations (wanted posters, PSA(s), etc.) also include personal touches, including a photo of the payroll person who delivers the cast and crew's checks on Thursdays.
Final Thoughts: Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is uncharacteristically brave and compassionate, a program that handles extremely difficult subject matter with intelligence and sobriety. It is more akin to Law and Order in that it is an ensemble piece (more so than the early episodes of Criminal Intent) that often ventures into the courtroom. However, its main emphasis remains with the investigators, which lends the subject matter a humanist perspective that never results in exploitation or cheap attention getting. This is a mature program for mature viewers, and as such it is highly recommended.
However, I have to take exception with Universal's decision to release one 45-minute episode of Special Victims Unit as a stand-alone release, as it places fans in a truly unenviable position. (I have also expressed this concern with the similar releases of the Premier Episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Monk.) If this release is, as I suspect, a test balloon for a box set, it comes at a spectacularly high – and disrespectful – price. Fans will (presumably) be expected to purchase this as a vote of confidence, which is dubious: buy it now, and if enough units sell, Season One will be released for purchase. Moreover, since many fans may already own the Law and Order: The First Year set, the inclusion of the pilot is less generous that the producers may imagine. So, buy it now and buy it again later, or refuse to at the risk of Season One never seeing the light of day.
As it stands, I recommend this as a rental. I also strongly recommend that those interested in a Season One release e-mail Universal to express their desire, rather than shelling out the funds that would otherwise be used for a box set purchase.