May 23, 2013



You can take a time-travel journey back to 20th-century network television with LAW & ORDER: SVU, the last remnant of Dick Wolf’s once-behemoth franchise.  Visiting the show for the first time since last fall reveals a few small surprises–Detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) has acquired a boyfriend–but for the most part, SVU is very much as it was when it premiered in September 1999, low-tech and doggedly paced, making it now seem almost charmingly old-fashioned.  It’s hard to believe that the series was once considered daring because of the sex-related crimes it solved; now it’s become TV’s equivalent of a black-and-white Warner Bros gangster movie from the Edward G. Robinson era.

Until its last 30 seconds, when it threw in a cliffhanger to acknowledge that this was a season finale (and also perhaps because Mariska Hargitay’s contract status for next season is unclear), last night’s episode, written by Executive Producers Warren Leight and Julie Martin, and directed by Norberto Barba, could have aired any time in the past 14 years.  Detective Rollins (Kelli Giddish) arrested a perp (guest star Pablo Schreiber) in Central Park for flashing a pair of tourists, and he turned out to be very bad news indeed, his record of rape, torture and murder hidden by bureaucratic snafus and his own gift for gaming the system.  Before the episode was over, he’d assaulted the main witness (Judith Ivey) to his park crime, resulting in her death, and the whole SVU squad–Benson, Rollins, Tutuola (Ice T), Amaro (Danny Pino) and Cragen (Dann Florek), Richard Belzer’s Munch being absent from the episode–was determined to put him behind bars.  He ended up going free thanks to sloppy work in the DNA lab, setting the stage for the season’s cliffhanger.

SVU, like all the Law & Order shows (and more recently The Good Wife) benefits greatly from the bank of great actors available in the New York area–for decades it’s been a standing joke that virtually every bio in a Broadway or Off-Broadway Playbill has mention of an appearance on at least one of them.  This episode was no exception, with an Assistant District Attorney played by Raul Esparza and a defense attorney played by Lauren Ambrose joining Schreiber and Ivey.  None of them were asked to do much heavy lifting, their roles being the kind of by-the-numbers characters that SVU usually features.  For that matter, the same is true of all the regulars; it’s a rare episode that has any of them doing more than expressing grim commitment to their tough jobs.  Even CSI feels warm and fuzzy compared to the no-nonsense SVU.

SVU is what it is, and it clearly has no intention of changing.  Its ratings are a mere shadow of what they were back in the day, and if NBC were stronger, it would likely have been put out to pasture a season ago or more.  But while its numbers are lukewarm, they’re reliable, and the network can’t afford more holes in its line-up than it already has.  History may have passed it by, but it’s still here, churning out procedural comfort food like an old roadside diner that was bypassed by the Interstate.  You wouldn’t want to make a special trip to see it, but if you happen to be driving by, the meatloaf still isn’t bad.




About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."