Thursday, June 2, 2011

'Law & Order: Special Victims Unit' - Season One (1999)

Starring Christopher Meloni, Mariska Hargitay and Richard Belzer
Created by Dick Wolf

Law & Order Special Victims Unit - The First YearSome TV shows go down easy, a kind of simple junk food, empty calories for the brain.  Some shows are incredibly complex, requiring you to watch every episode in order to grasp everything coming at you or that feature intense subject matter.  And then there are some shows that are a bizarre mixture of both. 

"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" is an episodic police procedural, meaning that the stories are mostly based around showing the solving of individual cases and don't feature much in the way of ongoing storylines or excessive character development.  The show focuses on the detectives of New York City's Special Victims Unit, which investigates sex crimes.  The primaries on most of the cases are Detectives Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), a veteran and family man, and Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), the daughter of a rape victim who joined up to get justice.  Other members of the team include Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer), a former Baltimore Homicide detective, Munch's young partner Brian Cassidy (Dean Winters) and Monique Jeffries (Michelle Hurd).  The team is led by Captain Don Cragen (Dann Florek), a man who must struggle with the politics of the New York Police Department, as well as his own status as a recovering alcoholic.

The SVU detectives tackle the worst and most depraved crimes in the city: rapes, molestations, slavery, child pornography and sex-related murders.  This often takes an intense toll on the personal lives of the detectives; sometimes it becomes too much for them to bear. 

"Special Victims Unit" can be a tough show to watch, but at the same time, it can be terribly addictive.  As a procedural, the characters are not particularly deep, but they are consistently portrayed.  Stabler often worries about his four children, particularly his oldest daughter who is a young teen.  Benson deals with the fact that she has no family and not much of a personal life.  Occasionally the show will throw these little bits of humanization into the show, as well as some internal political movements among the New York City police, but for the most part the focus is on solving those cases.

There are some real standout episodes in this first season, including "Closure," a story about a rapist who asks his victims how they like it, "Chat Room," about the dangers of online predators, "Disrobed" about a judge who gets sexual favors for certain decisions, and more. 

As awful and despicable as these crimes are, the show is imminently compelling.  The show draws the viewer into the world of criminal investigations, allowing us to tag along as the detectives unravel each case piece by piece.  The show is meticulous in going through the steps of these investigations, focusing more on picking apart alibis and such rather than scientific procedures like in other shows such as "Bones" or "CSI." 

Addictive, sure, but "SVU" does have one glaring flaw: its steadfast refusal to let more than a small percentage of these episodes to end in a clean or happy manner.  Sure, this is more realistic, but "SVU" seems to go further, to go out of its way to make sure that the characters are dragged through the mud.  Oftentimes, the perps get off on lighter charges than they should, and there are multiple occasions where the victims' lives are ruined beyond repair, or where the victims are even killed.  Somewhere around the halfway mark of the season, I began to become frustrated with this pattern as episode after episode would feature this kind of downer coda.  And yet... I couldn't stop watching this show, no matter how frustrated I was with how each episode seemed to end on a note of heartbreak. 

If you're looking for an addictive, but highly charged, police procedural, "SVU" is a television institution that's hard to deny.  It's easy to knock "Law & Order" as just another cop show in a sea of cop, lawyer and doctor shows.  But the truth is that "Law & Order" is really the cop show, and "SVU" is the cream of the crop in this now-legendary franchise.