September 27, 2012



LAW & ORDER:  SVU:  Wednesday 9PM on NBC

WHERE WE WERE:  A turf war between escort services run by Delia (Brooke Smith) and Ganzel (Peter Jacobson) turned murderous, leading to the death of a prostitute and the former Governor of NY.  Detectives Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Amaro (Danny Pino) were on the case, along with their colleagues Munch (Richard Belzer), Tutuola (Ice T) and Rollins (Kelli Giddish); it also turned out that an operative working for Ganzel, Cassidy (Dean Winters) was a cop who’d been undercover on the operation for 3 years.  All this culminated in one of Ganzel’s hookers, Carissa (Pippa Black) doping SVU Captain Cragen (Dann Florek) and making her way into his bed–where he woke up the next morning to find her with her throat cut.

WHERE WE ARE:  Watching Cragen get arrested for murder, although in the SVU universe there’s never any doubt that he’s been framed.  The 2-hour 14th season opener, written by Executive Producers Warren Leight and Julie Martin, and directed by Michael Slovis, concludes an unusual sustained story arc for SVU, which is normally the epitome of self-contained episodes.  Since it’s clear from the start that either Delia or Ganzel is behind the frame, and it doesn’t matter all that much which one, the only interest that the plot holds is who will turn out to be on one of their payrolls, which in this case includes much of the NYPD and the DA’s office (including guest star Paget Brewster as a seemingly sympathetic Internal Affairs prosecutor), but none of our regulars, heaven forbid.  By the end of the 2d hour, Cragen is free, although still under enough of a shadow (he did hire prostitutes, although we’re supposed to believe all he ever did was talk to them) that he won’t be coming back to the squad immediately, leaving guest star Adam Baldwin in charge to do a modified, less funny version of his by-the-book Chuck character.  Also unusual for the series:  a few scenes spent on the break-up of Amaro’s marriage (his soon-to-be-ex-wife was played by Laura Benanti, who’s looking good for long-term employment as the therapist on Go On).

SVU went on the air in 1999, when Bill Clinton was President, American Beauty had just screened at the Toronto Film Festival, and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire had recently been a summer phenomenon.  ER had a now-inconceivable 18-49 demo average of 16.9 –by comparison, last year’s Sunday Night Football, the highest rated series on TV, had an 8 rating.  More to the point, it was the same season that The Sopranos began, and several years before The Shield and The Wire.  Television was a different place in those days, and what was once a shocking, cutting-edge weekly series is now seriously old-fashioned.  Unlike its contemporary CSI, SVU hasn’t taken any opportunity over the years to freshen itself or modernize.  It remains a dialogue-based, slow-paced, shoe-leather procedural.

The season premiere revealed a show still put together very professionally, but with little or no interest in characterization, humor or nuance.  The newer leads are as dull as the veterans, and when the arc introduced one genuinely interesting role, Brooke Smith’s madam who never loses her cool or her cover of running a mere matchmaking service, the show didn’t seem to know what to do with her, and she was only given a few brief scenes.  The script was much more comfortable with the cliched scumbag Ganzel, whose character came out of every cop show you’ve ever seen.  In order to stretch the plot for 2 full hours, unnecessary contrivances had to be added, including an incredibly convoluted explanation for how Cassidy comes to be shot–then, because SVU has never had much interest in its people, he and Benson have a romantic hospital-bed moment, and he disappears from the show never to be seen again.

It would have been a mercy to everyone if NBC had let SVU go when its ratings start to plunge (last season it came in 81st place, with a 2.3 average).  While never a classic show, it was always quite good at what it did.  Watching it linger through a slow death has been like having to endure an aged relative who gradually loses a step, then two, then develops cataracts and needs a walker and an oxygen tank.  Is this really the way it should be remembered?  SVU isn’t high-quality enough to be a prized antique; at this point, it would be nice if it could stay one step ahead of the garage sale.

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."