It feels like we’re dangerously close as a culture to reaching peak true crime content. Every week a new podcast or documentary pops up to do a deep dive on a grisly, unsolved murder. But one series has been banging away at it for nearly two decades, peeking at the underbelly of New York’s most heinous sex crimes for 20 seasons. And yes I have somehow managed to watch every single episode in its entire history (438 of them to be exact, NBD).
I’ve thought a lot about why I watch the show so obsessively and what pathological abnormalities exist in me that I find a sex crime show so soothing. I think in the end it’s both the appeal of seeing a kind of justice play out in fiction that is so seemingly impossible to achieve in real life and a way to steel myself against what many women feel is the inevitable. Law & Order: SVU has become a kind of homework, a way to study the crimes of men so I can prepare myself. But of course you can’t prepare yourself and that’s a fantasy of its own, which is why part of the release is watching vigilante detectives pursue rapists to the ends of the earth. It’s nice to pretend for 60 minutes that that’s how it would play out.
So in homage to the show’s 20th anniversary, here are my favourite episodes from each season which may or may not be “ripped from the headlines.”
Season 1 - Episode 21, Nocturne
This is classic SVU canon. A photo developer discovers a semi-nude photo of a young boy, calls the detectives in and just as Benson and Stabler are devising a way to follow the perp, he walks right into the camera shop. And what started as a few inappropriate photographs turns into dozens and dozens of tapes, with several victims. The episode is absolutely gut-wrenching and leaves you with the perennial “I just watched SVU feeling” of “the world is completely fucked, I hate everyone.”
Season 2 - Episode 9, Pixies
One of the most heartbreaking things about watching SVU for this long is how often you see them tackle specific institutions and abuses within that network and then realize that five, 10 years on nothing has changed. “Pixies” is about a star gymnast whose murder reveals a string of abuse within the gymnastics community and even though the murderer ends up being a surprise, what’s really under scrutiny is the sometimes toxic relationship between gymnasts and the older men who occupy power in the sport. Prescient given what we now know about disgraced former US Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.
Season 3 - Episode 10, Ridicule
I don’t remember if there was an actual case like this in the news or if the writers were interested in a larger cultural conversation around the sexual power dynamics between men and women but this was a wild ep of Law & Order. It touches on both the sexual dynamics of a group of powerful, upper-middle class women and also male rape by a woman.
Season 4 - Episode 19, Appearances
Tying in the darker side of beauty pageants with the emerging world of cyber fantasy and recreation, this is kind of a bizarre episode in a season that had a lot of strong eps, but I can’t resist when this show treads into any territory related to the world wide web.
Season 5 - Episode 8, Abomination
This was a close one between episode eight and episode two, which deals with school shooters, but in the end I had to go with this story about a gay man who recently came out of sex conversion therapy at a Fundamentalist Church-led camp. At the time it first aired a lot of noise was starting to be made about the horrors of these “sex re-education” nightmares.
Season 6 - Episode 1, Birthright
Fucking stolen embryos and a deranged doctor trying to play god with the lives of babies and the choices of biological mothers? Yeah, this is a good episode.
Season 7 - Episode 6, Raw
A 2005 Neo-Nazi rally in Toledo likely sparked this episode that starts with a school sniper and ends in the uncovering of an underground Neo-Nazi group.
Season 8 - Episode 18, Responsible
Ugh not a great season as we lose Detective Benson to an undercover job and get stuck with Stabler’s new partner who is a very annoying “hot head” and also just kind of a terrible cop. But it was redeemed by this episode on a drunk, party mom who turns out to be a child predator.
Season 9 - Episode 15, Undercover
Benson is undercover again but this time she’s in a women’s prison where an inmate has accused a guard of sexual assault. The show is usually pro-cop but often shines a light on the abuses of power by prison guards. This episode is also notorious for an extremely distressing scene involving Benson and the rapist guard. This entire season focused a lot on governmental abuses of power via The Patriot Act and US-led torture in Iraq.
Season 10 - Episode 11, Stranger
I always wondered if this was based on the super eerie 1997 case of French scammer Frederic Bourdain who duped an American family into believing he was their long-lost son who went missing years earlier. It’s a crazy compelling story of a runaway who turns up and claims she’s a famously missing abductee and then because it’s Law & Order: SVU she turns out to be a liar.
Season 11 - Episode 2, Sugar
Ohmygod, Eric McCormack (Will of Will and Grace) is so good and deranged in this gruesome episode about a sex worker who ends up in a suitcase and he plays her out of control sugar daddy. No one loves sugar daddies and saying the words sugar daddies more than the writers on SVU.
Season 12 - Episode 9, Gray
This episode has always stayed with me and is actually the first time I heard about misoprostol, the abortion pill. While not always nuanced, this show has always been keen on delving into conversations around consent on college campuses and this episode attempts to make sense of the gray area.
Season 13 - Episode 1, Scorched Earth
Former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of a brutal sexual assault by a hotel maid in early 2011. This episode, which aired in late 2011, is about a woman working as a maid who accuses an Italian diplomat of rape. Justice came a bit quicker for the fictional maid.
Season 14 - Episode 19, Born Psychopath
There’s a very “We Need to Talk About Kevin” undertone to this episode about a 10 year-old who starts to betray extreme psychopathic tendencies even at a very young age. As always, BD Wong is amazing as Dr. George Huang who often gets to act as the voice of reason amid the cop’s brutish tendencies.
Season 15 - Episode 3, American Tragedy
As if this white, middle-aged blonde celebrity chef from the south who is probably a racist ISN’T supposed to be Paula Deen!!!
Season 16 - Episode 4, Holden’s Manifesto
This season is when things started to go downhill for me. Detective Benson adopts a son? Who cares?! This is a murder show not an adoption show. Ugh. Anyway, this episode is an eerily realistic portrayal of the crimes of Elliot Rodger, who killed six people and injured 14 at the University of California, Santa Barbara—shortly after releasing a manifesto about his perceived slights by women.
Season 17 - Episode 7, Patrimonial Burden
There are a lot of great “ripped-from-the-headlines” episodes in this season and they touch on everything from violence against transgender teens to institutionalized racism within the police department but I have to go with this Duggar-inspired episode that deals with a creepy reality show family that definitely doesn’t practice what they preach.
Season 18 - Episode 2, Making a Rapist
I feel like they sort of stopped pretending like these episodes aren’t based on real-life incidents anymore, with this one that is basically the story of “Making a Murderer” but with a twist, because there’s always a twist. Episode 16 is a close runner-up, tackling the downfall of former Fox News boss Roger Ailes.
Season 19 - Episode 8, Intent
Again, the show is truly at its most camp when attempting to explain the quirks of the internet to old people and does so with aplomb during this episode that is desperately trying to understand why a social media star keeps putting everything about herself online.
Season 20 - Episode 4, Revenge
We’re only a few episodes into the new season but the latest episode on incels is Law & Order: SVU at its best, taking a story from the headlines and finding a crude but entertaining way of explaining it to the masses.
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This article originally appeared on VICE CA.