I was driving through Crown Heights, Brooklyn today on my way home from a session at the recording studio and I saw a sign in someone’s window: “BLACK LIVES MATTER – DEFUND NYPD.”
Defunding or outright abolishing the police has become a rallying cry on social media, and in the country at large as of late, largely in response to the unjust killings of Elijah McClain and George Floyd by law enforcement officers in recent months. Police-facilitated deaths of young, innocent black men and women are not new in this country, but even after the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Eric Garland, and Michael Brown (among many others) over the last six years, this is the strongest push towards eliminating police departments I have seen in my lifetime. I understand why these calls are being made, and in many ways I support them. But I’ve also begun to notice a curious effect that these demands are having, in conjunction with one of my favorite television programs of all time: Law & Order SVU.
SVU, one of several spin-offs of Law & Order (often referred to affectionately as “the mothership"), has recently with its 21st season, surpassed the records of its parent show and Gunsmoke, to become the longest running live-action primetime series in American television history. As the opening to the show proclaims, “In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories.” SVU focuses mainly on the capture and prosecution of perpetrators of sexual assault, but often takes on issues of child abuse as well.
I have been a fan of SVU since day one, and having kept up with it for so long, I can say that it has a pretty interesting history, especially in terms of its cast. The show originally began with Detectives Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), Brian Cassidy (Dean Winters), and John Munch (Richard Belzer), all supervised by Captain Donald Cragan (Dann Florek, who came to the show from “the mothership”). Eventually, Cassidy was unable to handle the stress of the harrowing and brutal crimes he was forced to investigate, and so, he left the show and was replaced by Detective Odafin Tutuola (Ice-T), often referred to as “Fin.” As the show evolved and grew in its first decade on the air, it gained additional cast members – several Assistant District Attorneys (reporting up to Sam Waterston as Jack McCoy, the DA from "the mothership") who aided in the prosecution of the criminals (the two most famous in this era are Alex Cabot, played by Stephanie March, and Casey Novak, played by Diane Neal), Medical Examiner Melinda Warner (Tamara Tunie), Special Agent Dr. George Huang: the team’s psychiatrist who knows how to get into the minds of rapists and abusers (B.D. Wong), and for a while, Detective Chester Lake (Adam Beech). Towards the end of the first decade of the show, it had a massive, eight-person primary cast, which then slightly thinned out over the next few years as Lake left the team, ME Warner and Huang’s roles were diminished, and Novak left her position as ADA after being censured for violating the Brady rules.
The defining feature of SVU has always been how personally its characters take the crimes they are investigating, and how far they will go in pursuit of justice. During the Stabler years, this was often problematic, as Stabler had significant anger management issues, and frequently got into trouble with Captain Cragan for roughing up perps while arresting or interrogating them. Benson was forever trying to help keep him in line; Fin almost transferred out of the unit, claiming Stabler was a ticking time bomb, and his wife ultimately left him because he was unable to leave his work life at work. Benson and Stabler were like the yin and yang of the show – she deeply empathized with the victims, herself being the product of her own mother’s rape, and Stabler was the quasi-vigilante, doling out justice with his fists to pedophiles and serial rapists, often openly fantasizing about killing defendants he believed were guilty.
However, a massive change occurred prior to the start of Season 13: Christopher Meloni, one half of the main team of Benson and Stabler, couldn’t come to an agreement with the show’s producers regarding his contract, and he left the show abruptly. His character was written off hastily, and is replaced by Danny Pino as Detective Nick Amaro. Kelli Giddish also joins the cast at this point as Detective Amanda Rollins, newly arrived in New York from an SVU squad in Atlanta.
I almost gave up on the show after Stabler left, but in the end I couldn’t contain my curiosity with how the show was going to recover from the loss of one of its most popular characters. From Season 13 onwards, there is a marked shift in the tone and tenor of the program, though it never drops the signature: “ripped from the headlines” plot lines it relied upon (similar to “the mothership”). If you’re old enough to remember when Cheers was on NBC (or young enough to catch it streaming on Netflix), you may recall that a similar shift happens during Season 5, when Diane Chambers (Shelley Long) leaves the cast, and is replaced by Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley). During the Sam-and-Diane years, Cheers had been mainly a screwball romantic comedy, but with the arrival of Rebecca, the show changes gears and becomes more of a workplace comedy.
SVU, in the post-Stabler years, feels like a very different show. While the focus on the characters’ personal lives is still in play, we get acquainted with a whole new group of characters. We watch Amaro struggle with his own anger management issues (less severe than Stabler’s), Rollins struggles with a severe gambling addiction, and Benson recovers and moves on from the loss of Stabler as her partner – devastating due to the length of their partnership and their close personal relationship. In Season 14, ADA Rafael Barba (Raul Esparza) joins the cast and hugely breathes new life into the program with his flamboyant and aggressive prosecutorial style – I think he is hands-down the best ADA the program has ever had, and he remains to date, one of the show’s most popular characters. (I was heartbroken when he departed the show, and almost gave up on SVU again… but as usual, I couldn’t stay away for long.) With both Esparza and Pino in the cast playing Latino characters (they occasionally speak unsubtitled Spanish to each other), the show began to more accurately reflect the actual demographics of New York City. In Season 15, John Munch retired, followed not far behind by Captain Cragan. This left room for Benson to get promoted to Sergeant. A new plucky detective, Dominick “Sonny” Carisi, arrives in Season 16 and also became a fan favorite, due to his folksy Staten Island Italian affect and his overachieving nature (in the evenings, he attends night school to study law and eventually passes the bar, while still remaining a cop). While Amaro moves on at the end of the season, Benson is promoted to Lieutenant. Eventually Fin, long known for his lack of ambition, caves and gets promoted to Sergeant under Benson, who by Season 21 (this past year) finally gets promoted to Captain of the unit. Along the way, she adopted a son, Noah, and had two serious relationships, one with Brian Cassidy (Dean Winters returned for several episodes), and Ed Tucker from the Internal Affairs Bureau of the NYPD, played by Robert John Burke. All of these new scenarios allow Benson some serious character development after being personally stunted by her long partnership with Stabler, which often made her feel emotionally unavailable for romantic relationships.
Why am I giving you all of this information? Here’s why:
On June 12, 2020, EJ Dickson wrote a fiery op-ed in Rolling Stone Magazine entitled: “Sorry, Olivia Benson is Canceled Too,” claiming that her lionization as a good and righteous cop on SVU does real world damage.
This was followed by an overwrought article by Jordan Calhoun on June 28, 2020 in The Atlantic, entitled: “Saying Goodbye to Law & Order,” in which he says that although he used to love SVU, he can no longer reconcile it with his real life experience with police officers and he needed to walk away.
EJ Dickson appears to be White, while Jordan Calhoun is Black. Let me be perfectly clear: although I am a woman of color (my family hails from East India) - I was born in Washington D.C., then raised in San Francisco, and I have lived in the Hudson Valley for the past 17 years - I in no way can claim to fully relate to or understand the experiences of Black Americans in this country. That being said, both of these articles made me extremely angry, because after reading them it became completely clear to me that neither writer has even bothered to watch SVU during the past eight years. The banner on Calhoun’s article prominently features a photo of Stabler in the foreground. Dickson’s article is written as if Stabler is still a character on the show: “… Elliot Stabler, the platonic ideal of an emotionally unbalanced, physically abusive Bad Cop, is played by a man so hot and charismatic it should be illegal.”
I can understand where the confusion may lie, given that SVU reruns featuring Stabler run constantly in syndication (TBS may as well rename itself All SVU All The Time). However, Stabler has not been on SVU since 2011. He’s been gone for nearly half of the show’s run at this point, and the story has moved on. He doesn’t even come up in passing dialogue. So I have to ask: why the fuck are these people still talking about Elliot Stabler?
I recently binged all of SVU’s record-breaking 21st Season, right up until they had to suspend production due to COVID-19, and using information from this season and the prior eight seasons (that I actually bothered to watch), I’m going to refute several allegations from Dickson’s hit piece on Benson:
“Olivia Benson won’t change, not fundamentally, because nobody wants Olivia Benson to change. We’re probably not going to see her making an effort to hire more police officers of color.”
Wrong. This season, Carisi decides to use his law degree and moves over to be the ADA assigned to SVU cases. Benson responds with replacing him with Katriona “Kat” Tamin (Jamie Gray Hyder), a young cop poached from the Vice unit, who is of Lebanese descent. This season also features the introduction of Vanessa Hadid (Zuleikha Robinson), Bureau Chief of Sex Crimes at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, and Carisi’s new boss, who is of Iranian descent, and Deputy Chief of SVU, Christian Garland (Demore Barnes), who is African-American – obviously Benson did not hire either of these two superior officers, but the point holds that neither Benson the character, nor SVU the program, is resistant to change. (And in fact, it wasn’t resistant to change years ago when Detective Amaro and ADA Barba were snarking at each other constantly in Spanish while investigating cases.) Sergeant Fin Tutuola (Ice-T) also takes a larger role in this season due to his promotion, as Benson’s second-in-command and all-around back-haver, bringing a Black actor into top billing on the show, alongside Mariska Hargitay.
“We’re probably not going to see George Floyd incorporated into plot lines in anything but a cursory, ripped-from-the-headlines way.”
This is just stupid. Law & Order “the mothership,” and all of its spin-offs: Law & Order SVU, Law & Order Criminal Intent, Law & Order Trial by Jury, Law & Order LA, and Law & Order UK (yes, it exists!) have always taken their plots by ripping from the headlines. It isn’t actually a problem. The show has always attempted to accurately represent the current realities of society on this show; if it didn't, it would have fallen hopelessly out of date years ago. In Season 21, SVU features episodes based on the Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein scandals, as well as a rather sensitive approach to the Jussie Smollet debacle. Had SVU not suspended production due to COVID-19, their season would have ended prior to George Floyd’s tragic murder. I absolutely believe that whenever they are able to resume production for Season 22, they will do a George Floyd episode, and I don’t really understand what special extras Dickson expects from a show that has always taken their plots from the headlines.
“We’re probably not going to see her (Olivia Benson) being taken to task in front of an internal review board for overseeing a cop roughing up a black male suspect.”
Wrong again. In Season 17, SVU detectives get sucked into a disaster where cops from a precinct assisting them in a case, shot an unarmed black man who was unconnected to the investigation. Literally everybody had to go testify in front of the Internal Affairs Bureau. Come on, Dickson – at this point, I have to assume you’re just pulling this out of your ass. (Not to mention what about the many, many times Stabler was called in front of IAB for his volatile behavior?)
Oh, and let’s not forget to revisit this:
“… Elliot Stabler, the platonic ideal of an emotionally unbalanced, physically abusive Bad Cop, is played by a man so hot and charismatic it should be illegal.”
ELLIOT STABLER IS NO LONGER ON THE SHOW, AND HE HASN’T BEEN FOR YEARS; COME THE FUCK ON, WATCH THE GODDAMN SHOW BEFORE YOU WRITE UNINFORMED OP-EDs. JESUS H. CHRIST.
Calhoun seems to have watched the show up until the point that Stabler left the program, noting that: “His departure was abrupt but not without meaning, even if unintentional, amid a real-world context, Instructed to attend anger management and have his conduct investigated by Internal Affairs, he refused and quit.” But Calhoun seems to think that this is indicative of the character never having a true reckoning with his violent nature and celebrates him as a hero, which is a failing of the show. I disagree; I think the fact that Stabler refused to go in front of IAB (again) or attend anger management courses, but instead QUIT BEING A DETECTIVE indicts Stabler as a coward. People, HE DIDN’T EVEN SAY GOOD-BYE TO BENSON, HIS BEST FRIEND AND LONG-TIME PARTNER. He just vanished, leaving Captain Cragan to deliver the news to her, and never reaches out to her once after he left.
But again, Calhoun seems to be hanging his critique of SVU on Stabler’s problematic nature – the use of the photo of Stabler in the article’s banner emphasizes this. Which leads me to ask again: why aren’t people who criticize SVU watching what the program has done in the years since Stabler’s violent ass bailed on all of them collectively?
In Season 21, SVU featured episodes regarding the immigration and detention of immigrants trying to cross the border, and the children that they are separated from. They did another immigration-related episode, featuring an Immigration Officer who is abusing his position - vetting Green Card applicants’ marriages to coerce attractive women to sleep with him and deporting anyone (or their spouse) if they refuse. They did an episode featuring a 13 year old girl from Ohio, who travelled to New York to get an abortion, after her stepfather raped and impregnated her, and dealt with the complicated issue of which state’s rules applied in her situation. Another episode, addressed the sexual assault of a transgendered sex worker who was brutally attacked by a man who procured her services. Yet another featured an investigation of a white former Sergeant who violently raped one of his black Detectives many years ago, causing her to spiral downhill into alcoholism, self-destruction, and eventually suicide. And this is in addition to the timely episodes pertaining to Weinstein, Epstein, and Smollet. In all of these cases, yes, the detectives prevail (mostly) in achieving justice for their victims. I can understand the concern that episodes that show officers like Benson, Tutuola, Rollins, and Tamin succeeding contribute to an idea that all police officers are righteous, and how that is a dangerous message to send during an era where real-life, state-sanctioned killing of Black and Brown people has become depressingly commonplace.
But what I’m ultimately trying to say is: SVU, especially in the post-Stabler years, has made an effort to responsibly depict the good and bad aspects of policing. Benson and her crew often get caught going viral while arresting Black suspects by passersby who turn on their phone cameras, and they are constantly evaluating whether they are doing the right thing in these moments. SVU frequently features episodes about dirty cops getting their comeuppance - another Season 17 episode shows the squad busting the Deputy Chief Police Commissioner for the possession and distribution of child pornography. The characters are constantly discussing the parallels between their cases and the #MeToo movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement. The show has always had a diverse cast, and still does to this day. Benson may be an unrealistic angel of a police captain, but I don’t understand why people are declaring that they cannot watch the show anymore, or that she should be “cancelled.”
SVU is meant to be entertainment. At its best, it is thought-provoking, moving, and influential – many victims of sexual assault point to SVU as a program that has helped them feel heard and validated in their recovery from trauma. At its worst, okay, it’s a little soap-opera-ish and preachy. But why is it a problem to have a show on air displaying good cops trying to do the right thing, investigating the good and bad aspects of policing responsibly? Why are we being guilted by writers like Calhoun and Dickson to abandon the show in order to be good progressives (especially when they are referencing a character who has been gone from the show for years as a reason why)? Why can’t we just be happy to see a bit of a wish-fulfillment-fantasy on TV, as an example of what we hope our police officers should strive to be instead of the monstrous acts that they have become associated with in years past?
Entertainment can build empathy, and it can inspire. SVU is an example of a show that takes its responsibility to tell sensitive stories about difficult topics very seriously, and for the most part, it succeeds. I’m sorry, folks. I think we’re being pressured into abandoning SVU, just because it once featured a problematic character, and I’m just not buying it. Look at what the show has become in the last eight years before casting your judgement.
I was almost done with this piece when I read an article saying that NBC has green-lit a new Law & Order spinoff which will resurrect the character of Elliot Stabler and bring the much-beloved Christopher Meloni back to TV. It’s almost a given that there will be the inevitable crossover episode (or multiple episodes) with SVU, reuniting Benson and Stabler again. So okay, I guess we do have to talk about Stabler some more. Maybe there’s concern that Stabler will be back to his old tricks, and we’ll be watching him roughing up perps and slamming his fist into walls like it's 2003 all over again.
But I doubt it, and here’s why: a lot has changed since Stabler quit the force, both within the unit and within Benson’s personal and professional life. As Captain of the SVU crew, she likely outranks Stabler at this point. As a parent, she has become even more empathetic, and also even more steely, in her desire to protect children from predators. If Stabler is still a loose cannon, I don’t think she’ll put up with that, regardless of their close bond.
I also doubt it because of what Dickson so derisively referred to as the “cursory ripped-from-the-headlines” plots of the Law & Order franchise. In 2020 or 2021, in an environment where people are demanding to defund and abolish police departments nationwide, there is no way the producers of the franchise are going to allow Stabler to return without having a massive change of heart. Teasers for this new show suggest that Stabler has undergone a personal tragedy in the last eight years that has forced him to change his nature. This could be a great new leaf for Stabler, and coming back to visit Benson and Tutuola (and meeting the new detectives) could lead to some interesting, sensitive stories about the potential for change and growth. Heck, knowing the way the producers and writers of the Law & Order franchise operate, they will most likely address the issue of the calls to defund the police directly in the shows' plot lines. How could they not? Isn’t that good news? Wouldn’t that be the best case scenario?
I’m not saying goodbye to Law & Order SVU. I don’t think you should either. This isn’t the time to hide from depictions of unpleasant institutions, this is the time to applaud depictions that do so sensitively and responsibly. SVU during the Stabler years may not have succeeded at this, but post-Stabler, they have changed their game considerably, and I highly doubt that they will pretend not to notice how angry the world is at the police right now. They simply can't afford to. Let’s see what happens once COVID-19 allows them to resume production. Let’s give it a chance. I think we owe it to them, given their track record over the past eight years. And if you haven’t watched an episode over the past eight years – good lord, what are you waiting for? Even if you were ride-or-die Stabler, once you meet Barba, Carisi, and Tamin, you won’t miss him one bit.
(Nor should you. That dude was crazy.)
Reeya is a Hudson Valley-based musician and writer. In her other life, she works as a hospitality finance associate, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU reruns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use. She can frequently be found in various coffee shops and bars drinking IPAs while reading pop culture news on her phone.