The Bittersweet Lessons of Law & Order: SVU

Twenty years into its run, the show has fallen prey to a revealing paradox: As it has grown in relevance, it has lost its urgency.

While no one else may care, "Law & Order: SVU" says, Olivia Benson will. (Klara Auerbach / The Atlantic)

Here is something that will come as no surprise if you are familiar with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: The show, as it airs its 21st season on NBC, currently has a character caught in the limbo of a cliffhanger. During SVU’s most recent episode, members of the New York City Police Department’s sex-crimes squad, under the leadership of Captain Olivia Benson, investigate a shady billionaire who lured teenage girls into his orbit, grooming and, finally, sexually abusing them. The story is uncanny in its contours, and the detectives spend the episode steadily building a case against the Jeffrey Epstein–esque mogul and his Ghislaine Maxwell–esque assistant. The conclusion, however, will also come as no surprise if you are familiar with reality: The billionaire buys his way out. The detectives are left to watch as he hosts a party on his yacht—attended by both the victims of his abuse and the power brokers whose loyalty had a purchase price.

But the party isn’t, it turns out, the final scene of the episode. The show instead tacked on one more twist. The father of two of the girls who had been abused by the billionaire tracks down Amanda Rollins, one of the detectives who had been working his daughters’ case. Distraught, desperate, he holds a gun to her head.

“To be continued,” the episode’s intertitle announces, giddily, before the credits roll. Tchung-TCHUNG.

You could read that conclusion as typical of SVU, a show that weaves the aesthetics of the soap opera into the cadences of the police procedural. But you could see something else in it as well: the show’s assumption that to land a full punch to the gut, its retelling of the Epstein story needed to involve a threat to one of the show’s more familiar characters—one of the people to whom, over the course of several seasons, audiences have been used to expanding their empathies.

That is its own kind of plot twist. In the world beyond Law & Order, after all, the Epstein story is notable for not only its outrages—more than 80 women have accused him of assaulting them when they were young—but also the fact that, for years, those outrages were effectively ignored. SVU, for all its melodramas, has claimed to shed light on people who might otherwise be resigned to the shadows. It has claimed to care just as much about the supporting casts as it does about the stars. The gun that is currently aimed at Rollins’s head—a prop so anti-Chekhovian that it reads almost as camp—makes a different claim: The horror of the Epstein story is, for the show’s purposes, not quite horrific enough.

It took me a while to start watching SVU. I was aware of the show, definitely—some works of culture are so ubiquitous that they take on atmospheric properties. I knew the show’s premise and its cast and, somehow, the fact that Taylor Swift had named her cat Olivia Benson. But that was pretty much the extent of it. I write about sexual abuse as part of my job, and TV is a Darwinian proposition. When, after a long day, you can watch humanity at its worst or, alternatively, you can watch as a kindly British grandfather gives it his all in his bid to be named Star Baker, the decision pretty much makes itself.

I knew something else, too, though. People—women in particular, who comprise the show’s primary audience—love SVU. And they have loved it for decades, not only because melodrama has its merits, but also because SVU, long before it occurred to most other shows to do so, took sexual consent seriously. It took survivorship seriously. It had grim wisdom to impart. “Women, we don’t watch true crime,” the comedian Jena Friedman has observed. “We study it to make sure we don’t end up on it.”

And so, my curiosity finally winning out over my trepidation, I started watching SVU. I began with the pilot episode, first aired in 1999, when the show revolved around Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and her partner Elliot Stabler (Chris Meloni). And I went from there, as new detectives and district attorneys came and went, as American culture changed while the show’s core premise did not. SVU is now the longest-running prime-time live-action series in American history, and the feat of endurance alone provides a queasy commentary: The show features more than 20 hour-long episodes a season. It has never lacked for fresh material.

I came away from the watching both riveted and disappointed. On the one hand, the show, by its nature, sensationalizes sexual violence; on the other, it explores the ongoing effects of that violence on its survivors. On the one hand, there’s the “ripped from the headlines” pulpiness; on the other, there’s the sense of purpose. On the one hand, SVU converts suffering into entertainment; on the other, it finds value in the alchemy. Fiction but nonfiction, stereotype but nuance, the trite but the true—there are so many yes, buts in this show. There are so many compromises and concessions. Is SVU good for women and survivors? Yes. But.

“Why you working this so hard? He attack somebody who matters?” a sex worker asks in an early episode of SVU. It might as well have been a mission statement; the premise of SVU is that its detectives care deeply about people who have been abused, whoever those people might be. The show’s investigators often speak in statistics—about assault that takes place in prison, about the national rape-kit backlog. (Joe Biden, then the vice president, made an appearance as himself in a 2016 episode that tackled the rape-kit crisis.) A recent arc found the team learning trauma-informed interviewing techniques. Each episode begins with a rumbling voice-over introducing the “dedicated detectives” who focus on sexually violent crimes in New York. “Dedicated” has a double valence, because, as the show suggests, attention can be its own form of compassion.

Olivia Benson and Amanda Rollins, hard at work (Virginia Sherwood / NBC)

But SVU is a soap opera perched on a soapbox. It is often outlandish in a way that can chafe against the seriousness of its subject matter. Many of its plotlines about sexual violence involve preposterous twists and deus-ex-machina resolutions. A 2005 episode begins with a school shooting and ends, approximately five pivots later, with the uncovering of an underground neo-Nazi group. Another begins with the discovery of a toilet cam mounted in a public restroom; the episode goes on to deal with pedophilia—and the discovery that the pedophile in question had a brain tumor that, her lawyer argued, was causing her behavior. At the end of the episode, viewers learn that she is pregnant with the baby of one of the boys she molested.

There is much more in that vein. “You’re telling me that I married my own rapist?” is a line that was uttered in Season 10 and, at that point, I was shocked it had taken so long to materialize.

SVU’s earnestly absurd approach to storytelling has led, unsurprisingly, to missteps. The parade of guest stars that has become one of the show’s trademark elements can bring the thrill of familiarity to the stories it is telling, while also verging on self-parody. One episode, its plot centered on the trafficking of women from Latin America, included Rita Moreno, Angela Lansbury, Alfred Molina, and Bradley Cooper. Another, Season 12’s “Bully,” featured the journalists Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski playing themselves and Luann de Lesseps, the reality star, playing someone else. In one significant lapse of judgment, Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist, made an appearance on the show, his presence breaking a fourth wall that had no need of breaching.

SVU gets away with a lot, though, because of the kind of work it is doing. At its best, the show is modeling a better world. It rips its stories from the headlines, yes, retelling many of them as faithfully as defamation laws will allow. Many of the conclusions it writes, however, engage in savvy revisionism. That is how you get so many scenes of abusers getting handcuffed. That is how you get an episode that culminates in a Steubenville-style rapist apologizing to his victim in court, his voice shaking with regret. Catharsis is the show’s currency: SVU offers the justice that reality too frequently fails to provide. Its moralisms are tinged with magic. The show is a gritty police procedural; its true genre, however, is the fairy tale.

But deep tensions are embedded in the vision SVU is selling. The show, after all, celebrates police detectives as uniquely compassionate during a time when many Americans’ trust in law enforcement has plummeted. It has built its fantasies around an institution that many, correctly, associate with tragedies. “We’re not gonna hurt you, guys. We’re the police,” Olivia says in an episode of Season 5, and it is a line that could not have existed in later seasons.

SVU has dealt with the tension, sometimes, directly. Early on, it began making references to the civil-rights abuses accompanying the Patriot Act. Later, it began featuring more elliptical acknowledgments of the fact that, in the world beyond its universe, unarmed civilians have been regularly slain by police officers.

The show has also managed this real-world friction, in part, by focusing ever more narrowly on the individuals at its center. In particular, it has aimed its spotlight on Olivia—who, once Meloni left the show, became SVU’s singular star. Her heroism is both insistent and tidy. “There are two things you need to know about me,” she tells a new colleague in Season 17, by way of introduction. “First, I like an open and free exchange of ideas. And, second, I’m usually right.”

As Olivia has risen through the ranks of the NYPD, her character has come to question, ever more stridently, the institution she is a part of. During a bottle episode in Season 20, Olivia and her colleagues engage in a passionate—and nuanced—debate about the sharp divisions between justice, as the system conceives it, and empathy. Olivia, who is the product of her mother’s rape, has also blurred another line: She is an investigator of sexual violence who is also a victim of it. One arc, during which she went undercover in a women’s prison, found her brutally beaten by a sadistic guard. Another—through a cliffhanger ending that anticipated the one in which Amanda Rollins is currently caught—found Olivia kidnapped by a serial rapist and assaulted and tortured.

Those story lines are evidence of SVU’s galling appetite for violence; they also, however, work to preserve the show’s fragile fantasy. They exempt Olivia from a justice system that too often fails to serve justice. The real world is a place where police departments have nicknamed their sex-crimes divisions the “lying bitches units,” and where Brock Turner got only three months in jail, and where Donald Trump bragged about assaulting women and was held accountable by being elected president. In the SVUniverse, on the other hand, accountability is possible in part because Olivia Benson, investigator and survivor, will entertain no other option. Fiction is faith, too. The philosopher and legal scholar Martha Nussbaum sums it up like this: “You can’t really change the heart without telling a story.”

That SVU is both radical and regressive makes it, for all its antics, typical. Women and survivors are, at this point, accustomed to compromise in the stories American culture tells about them—used to the literature of their lives being dismissed as empty diarism, or to watching as Sansa Stark, raped and brutalized, announces with beatific acceptance that the abuse has been for the best. For anyone who has not been seen as a direct heir of American culture’s canons, entertainment can demand small acts of forgiveness. You overlook this because of that. You take what you can. You find yourself wishing, for example, that SVU had handled its latest take on the Epstein story with more nuance—but also feel grateful that a show is handling it at all.

Today, thankfully, more series are doing what SVU has been doing for so long. There are shows such as Netflix’s Unbelievable, which was thrilling in the detail and empathy it brought to its treatment of stories of rape. Unbelievable is adapted from a work of journalism, ProPublica’s “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” and this version of the SVU feedback loop—the journalism, reimagined as entertainment—is revealing. So is the popularity of recent documentaries such as Surviving R. Kelly and Leaving Neverland, which engage in the work SVU has tried to do, but without the melodrama. Pulp has been one way to make sense of a sexually violent world. As more creators grapple with the question of how to portray that violence on-screen, SVU will have more counterparts doing what it has long claimed to do: taking sexual abuse out of the realm of silence and shame. SVU is still uncomfortably relevant; the show is less urgent, however, than it once was.

And so Amanda Rollins waits, her fate both uncertain and, the demands of a network drama being what they are, sure. She is at the mercy of a man and his pain and his gun. But she is also held in another kind of thrall. She is the subject of a show that, two decades after it began, still makes uncomfortable deals in its effort to turn real-life horror into ratings-grabbing fiction. She is part of a series that took in the Jeffrey Epstein story and decided that what the story really needed, if it was going to make for good TV, was more drama.