NBC’s heart-racing investigation drama marks a major milestone. Plus: A look at what’s on the horizon and how the cop tale has evolved over two newsworthy decades.
In the fall of 1999, Hurricane Floyd swept through the Southeast, Donald J. Trump announced his first run for POTUS—on the Reform Party ticket—and producer Dick Wolf launched his very first Law & Order spinoff, Special Victims Unit. Eighteen years later, Trump has finally won that coveted job, and SVU is the third longest running live-action scripted show in TV history, after its progenitor and Gunsmoke, both tied at 20 seasons. On February 8, the beloved procedural will air its 400th episode as it inches closer to Law & Order’s grand total of 456. (Gunsmoke holds a record at 635.) Not bad for a show whose intro touts a focus on “especially heinous” sex-based offenses (one early review stated it featured “crimes that will have the cops and viewers holding their stomachs”).
Delicate constitutions aside, SVU’s longevity and continued sturdy ratings have been propelled by what cast member Ice T—who’s been playing Det. Fin Tutuola since way back in Season 2—cites as “a whodunit format that offers a chance for fans to play detective each week.” And that audience is not exactly who you’d expect. “We’re seeing a whole new generation rediscover the show on streaming [services like Hulu],” says NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke. “Our audience is getting younger year to year, which is incredibly rare in our business.”
SVU has also become cathartic for those who can identify with the show’s long line of victims. “Unlike shows where the victims are all dead, viewers can relate to SVU because many of them, especially the women, have survived harassment or abuse,” Ice T explains. “There’s a message of hope for them—that you can not only survive this but that you can thrive,” agrees the series’ new exec producer, Rick Eid, who became showrunner in 2016 after years of involvement in the franchise. “That message is delivered with compassion by our show’s lifeblood, Mariska Hargitay, and her character, Lt. Olivia Benson.”
It is November 9, 2016, the day after Trump’s electoral triumph, and Hargitay is celebrating one of her own: SVU’s quadricentennial episode, “Motherly Love.” “We knew that Mariska would direct the 400th,” says Eid, “so we wanted material that would excite her and highlight her strengths as an actor and as a director. We found one that pits two strong women—both mothers—against each other. It’s all about Benson’s passion, compassion, intelligence and power, the things that Mariska has conveyed so well for 399 episodes.”
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