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Law & Order

Special Victims Unit
Director: Dick Wolf, Ted Kotcheff, David Burke
Creator: David Burke
Cast: Mariska Hargitay, Christopher Meloni, Richard Belzer, Ice-T, Dann Florek, Stephanie March
Regular airtime: Fridays, 10:00pm EST

(NBC)

Review [31.Dec.1994]

Sophomore Slump

I know all about addiction and 12 step programs. I know that the first step to recovery, long before making amends to those we have hurt and accepting the presence of a higher power, is to admit that one has a problem, to ‘fess up that one is, indeed, out of control. To that end, I will openly confess that I am an addict. I freely admit that my life has been overrun by my addiction, and that I am no longer in control of my impulses. So, in an attempt to take that all-important first step, I hereby proclaim: My name is Susan. I am a Law & Order addict. I accept that my higher power is creator and executive producer Dick Wolf. I apologize to all those loved ones who have had the misfortune to call me on the phone during A&E’s semi-annual Law & Order marathons. But, you know, a higher power is a higher power.


I also know that most addicts don’t take that first step to recovery without some sort of divine intervention, or at least one hell of a traumatic event. I am no exception. My traumatic event was the creation of the first L&O spin-off series, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Truth is, I wanted to love this series as much as I love the original. Not that I have any more time to spend watching L&O — it’s already on, in my house, four times a day — but I came to the new series with high hopes. And why wouldn’t I? It boasted the same creators as the original, a sex crimes unit that promised to deliver fascinating cases, and — I presumed — characters who were both believable and addictive, just like those in the first series: what could possibly go wrong?


What went wrong — tragically wrong — was that the formula that makes Law & Order so fascinating got lost in the transition to L&O: SVU. The beauty of L&O is that it combines the best elements of the cop show (right up there with Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue) with the best of the courtroom drama (a la L.A. Law). We get to watch the detectives solve the crime, and then the D.A. prosecute it. Not only does this give the viewer more bang for her proverbial buck, but it also allows for more complicated storylines, surprising twists, and fantastically smart analyses of cases that are, as the tag line declares, “ripped from the headlines.”


The primary problem in SVU is that it focuses almost entirely on the detectives, whose investigations plod on so methodically that even the “shocking” turns aren’t nearly as unexpected as they’re supposed to be. This focus also makes it glaringly apparent that the detectives aren’t terribly interesting characters. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) breaks down and cries at the drop of a hat. Yes, we know, she is the product of her mother’s rape, making her overly sensitive to the cases that are assigned to her as a member of the elite SVU team. But knowing her origins make her no less annoying, and actually makes you wonder why exactly she would place herself in such a position if she can’t take it. Sure, there’s something noble about hunting down sexual predators as a means of exacting justice for her mother. But Benson is too weepy and it only makes me feel sorry for her, not particularly interested in her.


Benson’s partner, Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) is similarly uncompelling. A dedicated family man with teenage daughters, Stabler is naturally bothered by the cases he catches, and he goes through enough brooding to effectively prove it. Worse, his concern for his own children’s safety manifests itself in disturbing ways: he repeatedly reads one daughter’s journal, for example; then, after apologizing and promising to treat her with more respect, proceeds to breaks into her e-mail account. One would assume that we are supposed to like him, since he’s one of the protagonists, but he’s self-righteous and slimy and entirely predictable. His mood never really changes from his reserved, professional “I’m a dad first and cop second” stance. Commendable? I suppose. But it’s boring.


SVU could draw subtle attention to Stabler and Benson’s obviously personal reasons for choosing to serve in a sex crimes unit. But instead of letting the characters unfold over the course of the season(s), like the original Law & Order does, it instead slaps the viewers across the face with their backstories. Consequently, it feels more like a brick to the head than it does character development. One might reasonably look to the supporting cast for the excitement or nuance that Benson and Stabler fail to deliver. But the show disappoints there, too. Certainly, enlisting Richard Belzer to reprise his role from Homicide: Life On The Streets, Detective John Munch, was inspired. While Munch is still an entertaining character, his paranoid rants — so enlightening on Homicide — tend to fall flat on L&O: SVU; quite simply, Munch needs a strong personality to bounce off, and neither of his partners has been able to provide it.


First there was Detective Monique Jeffries (Michelle Hurd), who was kicked out of SVU for being a slut. (That is, during a routine squad-wide round of psychological screening, it comes out that Jeffries once fucked a former suspect who was cleared of any wrongdoing when the real perp confessed.) This was apparently a sign of Jeffries’ nymphomania, or at least her inability to do her job properly. She was never given a chance to defend her actions before being transferred out of the unit — and off the show. Perhaps women in the SVU are expected to be more like Benson, weepy and repressive and victims by birth. Perhaps there isn’t room on SVU for a black woman who is openly sexual. I don’t know. But either way, she left without fanfare.


Jeffries’ departure cleared the way for Ice-T, who has this season joined the cast as Detective Odafin “Fin” Tutuola. It’s hard to imagine that an actor with the electric presence and skills of Ice-T can’t improve the stew. But amazingly, he doesn’t. So far, Fin is only stoic and bland. I have yet to see him display any hint of a personality. Granted, part of the problem is that the SVU writers haven’t given him much to do: he’s Munch’s Yes Man, and it doesn’t become him. More to the point, perhaps, Ice simply has yet to rise to the occasion.


But nobody — nobody — is as bland and one-dimensional as Assistant District Attorney Alex Cabot (Stephanie March). It becomes a bit easier to understand the original decision to cut back on the “Law” part of Law & Order: SVU when one looks at March’s completely dull portrayal of Cabot, displaying none of the complexities of her ADA counterparts on the original series, Jack McCoy (Sam Waterson), Claire Kincaid (Jill Hennessy), Abbie Carmichael (Angie Harmon), or even the largely unmovable and aptly named Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty). And this is what makes SVU particularly weird: where the show is happy to give us too much information on the personal lives of Detectives Benson and Stabler, it gives up absolutely nada on Cabot. We know nothing about her, and we care nothing about her. She makes Britney Spears look damn-near introspective.


Between its static characters and predictable plots, SVU is showing a clear case of sophomore slump. You can’t really blame Wolf for wanting to milk his cash cow — Law & Order has been a popular and critically lauded series for 11 years now — but Special Victims Unit simply doesn’t live up to its promise or potential. The acting is nowhere near the caliber on Law & Order, and while a “bad” episode of SVU is still better than a “good” episode of, say, Ally McBeal, it still can’t compare with the original. I guess this means I can move on to step number 2.

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