“Welcome to a world of gray,” says Detective Elliot Stabler (played by Chris Meloni) to his new partner Danni Beck (played by guest star Connie Nielsen) in the second episode of the eighth season of Law & Order: SVU. The “world of gray” Stabler is talking about isn’t filled with morally ambiguous crimes (say, like dealing drugs to feed your kid brother)—the crimes are always heinous and the victims are always special (it says so in the opening of every episode).
The real world of gray is for us, the viewers, who during this particularly great season of SVU, are prevented from knowing what the actual focus of the show will be until the middle of the episode, and the final revelations often don’t come until moments before Dick Wolf’s name appears and the credits roll. The real “world of gray” on SVU’s eighth season is whether or not the crime in the cold open will actually have anything to do with each episode.
The eighth season of SVU (out now on DVD in a set with zero extras) begins with what very nearly became a “nuke the fridge” moment—Detective Olivia Benson (played by Mariska Hargitay) becomes intertwined with a FBI investigation into an environmental rights group that the feds suspect is responsible for a string of attacks on housing developments. This leads Benson to going undercover and being shipped off to Washington to gather intel on the group.
The real reason for Benson’s quick undercover mission is that Hargitay needed some time off for maternity leave, and when she no longer needed to be off the show, her whole mission was wiped out in a matter of minutes—she gets involved in solving a sex crime in Washington, and the people she just spent months investigating are written off as mere tree-huggers. It was an awkward solution to a problem with casting, but it gave the show—which usually drips with stark realism—a brief foray into moderate fantasy that it didn’t need.
Elsewhere, a decent part of the season is devoted to the personal problems of Benson and Stabler. Benson discovers halfway through that her father (actually the man that raped her mom) had another family, and she has a half-brother. Quite melodramatically, her brother ends up at the center of a rape investigation by an over-zealous police captain.
Stabler, meanwhile, has to deal with his wife pressuring him to finalize their divorce, while he drags his feet hoping for reconciliation. But then in a period of getting along, Stabler gets his wife pregnant, making him reassess his priorities regarding his family.
Both story arcs have their shares of melodrama, but they reveal the undertow of the detectives actions in a way that isn’t often illustrated in the original iteration of Law & Order. That’s where SVU is stronger than the original show—it lets you into the lives of the detectives, even the conspiracy nut Detective Munch (played by Richard Belzer) who deals with the fact that he could lose his mind in old age like his uncle, and Detective Tutuola (played by Ice-T) who has problems with his son and ex-wife stemming from past work as a narcotics officer.
But there’s more than just personal drama during season eight (although it hardly seems like it at times)—there’s a bunch of sexually based crimes committed by very bad people. And this season has some baddies—none better than a pimp named Victor Bodine, who lures teenage girls from foster homes onto the streets.
The plot that involves Bodine is a mostly standard “pimp is bad, we should arrest him” storyline, but Bodine is played with an oozing menace and quick humor by Michael K. Williams, better-known as Omar Little from The Wire fame. There’s a certain amount of perversity with Williams using Omar’s patent swagger to play a pimp when his character on The Wire at least had a strict social code, but Williams’ powerful performance is the season’s main highlight.
The season ends with one of the series’ best episodes—the SVU unit comes under fire during the trial of Tutuola’s ex-wife’s first son, played by Ludacris. Ludacris and his lawyer (played by Steven Weber) take to discrediting the SVU when it becomes apparent that they don’t stand a chance of getting him off his murder beef. The tactic works well—Ludacris gets off after essentially admitting to the act of killing a woman and her daughter, Stabler’s daughter has to go to jail to be processed on a drunk driving charge that he had erased for her, Captain Donald Cragen (played by Dann Florek) is forced to step down after it is revealed that he signed off on certain transgressions by his detectives, and the D.A. assigned to their cases (Casey Novak, played by Diane Neal) is reprimanded.
That most of those issues would be wrapped up in the first few episodes of season nine isn’t known when the theatrical montage closes out the eighth season in high fashion. At the time, it seems like the show could be ending as we know it.
After starting it’s life as the first of what now seems like 20 Law & Order spin-offs, it took a while before SVU gained it’s own identity, and settled into the drama-packed, twists before every commercial break show it is now, in its 10th season. Season Eight began that transition, developing the show into the oftentimes better than the original program it is now.