Twenty years ago, just a few months before the new millennium, Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni took the screen as two fresh-faced young detectives working in New City's Special Victims Unit, expanding on Dick Wolf's original Law & Order universe in a standalone series focused on sex crimes. Law & Order: SVU was probably the first show on network television to process these issues candidly, and despite numerous shifts in the series’ cast, tone, and legacy over the decades, it’s managed to wedge its way into the hearts of generations. As we approach the history-making 21st season of the series, one improbable demographic of fans has stood the test of time: young women. Who knew late-afternoon binges of sexual tension between two detectives would lead to Taylor Swift naming her cat after Hargitay's character Olivia Benson?
As a serial Hargitay stan who’s never missed a frame of the series (and questions my parents' judgement in letting that be the case before I was 10 years old), I proudly include myself in this group. However, something I’ve been discussing with my therapist lately is how an anxiety-prone young woman such as myself could become so fascinated with a show centered around scenarios I’d normally find extremely fear-provoking. Still, I find myself Brokeback Mountain-mumbling "I wish I knew how to quit you" as the 6th opening dun-dun rings in my ears every other night. To get to the bottom of my addiction, I reached out to some young women who are equally obsessed.
Like many hard drugs, one’s entry into the SVU universe can assume many forms. For television producer and self-proclaimed "Old Millenial" Zara Findlay-Shirras, it happened 14 years ago, when she first moved to New York City. At first, she tried the original Law and Order, which focused on straight-up homicides, but something was missing. "As much as I love Sam Waterston and S. Epatha Merkerson, [Law & Order] didn't grip me as instantly as SVU did," Findlay-Shirras said. "I think it's because if you start from the middle of an episode of Law & Order, it's sometimes hard to understand what's happened/who's dead/whose trial it is. But for some reason, even if you catch the last 10 minutes of SVU, it's very clear that 'Oh shit, that man is evil, and Olivia will destroy him.’"
Claudia Castillo, a content creator, remembers one USA marathon about ten years ago that changed it all. "I'd caught an episode here or there, but there's nothing like binge-watching a show to draw you in," she said. Comedian Isaura Dos Santos had a similar experience. "It was a rainy Tuesday, and I wanted to binge-watch something," she said. "The guide showed me that Law & Order: SVU was on all day, so I was sold." Part of what makes SVU so compulsively watchable is the formulaic model each episode follows—the exposition of the crime, followed by the narrowing of the suspect pool, an interrogation, a conviction, and sentencing—fostering a sense of comfort while also enabling the viewer to make educated guesses about the episode’s perp.
"It's amazing to me how formulaic the show can be, and yet you never get bored," said Findlay-Shirras. “You know the swim coach is a red herring if he's coming in 10 min into the episode. The bad guy will make an appearance later once they start asking questions."
On paper, the subject matter of the show is extremely unsettling. But many of the women I spoke with said the show, which has always been about protecting the rights of victims, helped open up a space for processing their own experiences with misogyny and sexual assault.
"The first time I heard someone being referred to as a 'survivor' and not a 'victim' was on SVU," Dos Santos said. "I was 15 when the show started, and there was no conversation on sex and consent being held at school or in the community. SVU taught me terms and made it feel okay to talk about past experiences."
It also helped that the beginning of the series featured several strong female characters, including Lieutenant Olivia Benson, Detective Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish), and Judge Elizabeth Donnelly (Judith Light). "Women are the victims," Findlay-Shirras said, "but you also see women being strong, rising up against their abusers—testifying against the odds, being in positions of power, like Olivia, ADA Casey Novak [Diane Neal], Rollins, ADA Alexandra Cabot [Stephanie March], that amazingly zen Medical Examiner Dr. [Melinda] Warner [Tamara Tunie]."
As time has passed, there have been fewer lady ADAs, but we've seen Benson rise through the ranks from detective, to sergeant, to lieutenant, all while being a single mother and enduring kidnapping, sexual abuse, and a myriad of other emotional and physical traumas on and off the job. Which tracks, if you consider the way the show has served as a mirror for different conversations going on in the world outside the screen: "The tone of the show has matured and served as an advocate for various causes," Castillo said. Well before to the #MeToo Movement, SVU was "always championing for women that didn't have a voice or people that didn't believe them," Castillo said.
Many of the women I spoke to said that in recent years, they’ve noticed the show becoming a little more realistic, a bit less centered around shocking events. It also has fewer moments of comic relief, something Dos Santos thinks served to lighten up the mood when the show debuted—"especially when it comes from Benson or Stabler during a serious interrogation." Indeed, Elliot Stabler’s exit at the end of season 12, in 2011, seemed to mark the end of the era in which we’d encounter the detectives asking a perp if he fell on a victim with his penis, or whether it’s all fun and games until someone loses a penis, or if a perp tried to help a victim up with his penis.
Instead, recent episodes have featured Paula Deen’s penchant for racial slurs and Trayvon Martin’s untimely death ("American Tragedy"), storylines in which professional athletes or performers are violent against their partners, and even school shooting narratives. There are fewer laughs, but also more opportunities for the show to grow and change with the times.
And that’s not just when it comes to the show’s depiction of sexual violence: SVU has also evolved when it comes to expanding the roles of minority characters, allowing people of color to live other places besides Harlem or the Bronx and rendering LGBTQ characters as complex individuals rather than caricatures. SVU also shows that it is possible to have a female series lead and offer fans the opportunity to watch her grow over the years—just like we have.
When I asked people who their favorite character was, it was no shock that everyone stans Benson—myself included. "Olivia Benson is resilient, honest, empathetic and makes me want to do better," said Dos Santos. "I never thought a fictional character would make me want to do better."
Over the past 20 years, we’ve watched her climb the ranks from rookie detective to the head of the Special Victims Unit—all while holding down a job, raising a child as a single mother, finding love, and bonding with her team of detectives. Last season, a whole episode revolved around Benson becoming too old to run after perps after a school shooting. The storyline did nothing but cause speculation of her exit, a risky move considering the age of the show, and bore at least one fan (me) to tears. Still, it was the rare example of a woman on television being allowed to age gracefully.
Of course, some fans still prefer the rookie Benson who seemed to never shy away from dangerous situations—the one who went undercover in prison, infiltrated a dangerous environmental group, and once even pretended to be gunned down by a group of kidnappers. Though Benson is a "total bad-ass," Findlay-Shirras said, she preferred when the character "was just a detective and not leading the department. She was more interesting at the crime scene as opposed to just seeing her manage her team." Still, many of the women I spoke to viewed Chris Meloni’s exist at the end of the 12th season as the start of a positive shift in the fictitious sex crimes unit.
"[This] might be an unpopular opinion, but I think SVU had a glow up post-Stabler," Castillo adds. "It might have struggled along the way, but the show has found success without him and keeps on going!"
Findlay-Shirras feels similarly. "I can't believe the show stayed good after Stabler left—I really can't. But I'm so into Baby [Noah] Benson and [Detective Amanda] Rollins's troubled family—and [Detective Dominick] Carisi's hair! Also when [Detective] Fin explains technology to Olivia."
When all is said and done, though, it’s clear that Benson is the heart, soul and legacy of the show. And while hopefully we don’t have to worry about Hargitay walking away from the show anytime soon, you never know. "I truly think the show will end once Hargitay decides she doesn't want to do it anymore," said Castillo. "And let's be real, the show would not exist in a world without Olivia Benson."
Well, at least we won’t have to worry about that for 22 or so more episodes. Long live Benson and long live the Special Victims Unit.