NBC's 'Law & Order: Special Victims Unit' Remarkably Roars Back To Life In Its 15th Season
This venerable franchise from indefatigable executive producer Dick Wolf -- who is also enjoying increased success this season with his sophomore effort, NBC’s “Chicago Fire” -- has boldly and brazenly told stories during the last two weeks that other dramas wouldn’t touch -- or more to the point, wouldn't handle with such mature assurance. The season premiere found Detective Olivia Benson captured and tormented by the psychopathic serial rapist who had broken into her apartment and held her at gunpoint during last spring's fourteenth season finale. The psychopath was in power throughout the episode, assaulting Benson, raping another woman and killing two other people before Benson managed to heroically subdue him and then beat him senseless. It was as draining an hour of television as I can remember, and at times almost too painful to watch. But that kind of crime and punishment seems to be what most of the audience for broadcast television drama is seeking, to judge from the ratings and overall longevity of such shows, and “SVU” certainly served it up well.
Interestingly, series such as CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “Criminal Minds” and ABC’s “Castle” have during their runs offered up even more graphic and violent scenarios in which innocent people suffered unimaginable torment, often ending in their deaths. But when one watches those shows, the suffering of the victims rarely makes a substantial emotional impact. They are more often than not plot points: The only people viewers are made to feel invested in and to care about when they are in trouble are the main characters. This is sometimes true of “SVU,” as it was for “L&O,” but more often than not the violence and horror in these shows feels very personal. This was the case with this season's “SVU” premiere. Much of the credit goes to series star Mariska Hargitay, who used to be a perennial Emmy nominee for this role and once took home the award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. I think it safe to speculate that she should prepare to rejoin the circle of nominees next year.
Meanwhile, the third episode of “SVU” this season, which ran on Wednesday, stirred things up all over again with a story that drew upon recent events including charges of racism against Paula Deen and the killing of Trayvon Martin. Cybill Shepherd played a celebrity chef named Jolene Castille who shot and killed a teenage African-American male after the young man followed her to her door late at night on a dark Manhattan street. Castille asserted that she felt threatened by him specifically because the police were searching for a young African-American male who had raped several older women in that very neighborhood.
The story thoughtfully explored race relations, racial profiling, stop and frisk practices and issues involving personal safety, as well as the right of an individual to protect him or herself in a situation that he or she perceives as life-threatening. There were no narrative cop-outs or easy answers, but the toll that the situation took on everyone involved, from the victim's parents to the police, was palpable.
The focus of this episode wasn’t on her, but Hargitay remained masterful as Benson, who was continuously reminded of her own harrowing ordeal while investigating the many rapes that had occurred before Castille shot the young man. To the credit of all involved, the story of her abduction and abuse is far from over, in terms of her own personal recovery and, presumably, the likelihood that the man who abducted her will find a way to press charges against her for the beating he sustained when she finally broke free.
These stories have made “SVU” galvanizing television, as powerful as it was earlier in its run, when Hargitay shared the screen with departed co-star Christopher Meloni. It’s all the more impressive because it’s happening at the start of a new season when the competition among the broadcasters couldn’t be more intense.