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Everything Old Is New Again On Law & Order: SVU's 21st Season... Maybe

Could off-season changes spell new life for TV's longest-running cop show?
  • Mariska Hargitay as Lieutenant Olivia Benson in a scene from the season premiere of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC)
    Mariska Hargitay as Lieutenant Olivia Benson in a scene from the season premiere of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC)

    When Christopher Meloni's Elliott Stabler left Manhattan Special Victims at the end of Law & Order: SVU's thirteenth season, two things happened: Warren Leight stepped in as the procedural's showrunner, rebuilding the series with Mariska Hargitay's Olivia Benson as its lead, and focusing storylines — many of them outside the squad room — around her, and SVU, the last Law & Order standing, began a slow, rocky slide into hate-watch territory for many longtime fans, including this correspondent. These two developments are not unrelated. I acknowledge that Leight — who stepped away from the show in 2016 — made the best choices available as far as refitting the show to move forward without Stabler, and I also acknowledge that Hargitay has tried to use her executive-producer, face-of-the-franchise status for good, bringing attention to issues of sexual violence and using ripped-from-the-headlines plots as teaching moments.

    But teaching moments don't always make for great TV, and SVU in the #MeToo era has struggled to balance educating its audience with making a watchable cop show that isn't dragged down by The More You Know-style dialogue and less than credible storylines. I didn't expect a whole lot to change in that regard in the show's record-setting twenty-first season, but at the end of Season 20, another two things happened: First, SVU executed one of its rare and welcome course corrections when it recognized that Chicago Justice import Philip Winchester's Peter Stone just didn't work, and wrote him off. Second, they brought Warren Leight back as the showrunner. What would these changes mean for Season 21 -- and specifically for viewers like me, who still saw glimmers of the old golden-Stabler-era SVU in episodes that let the detectives do detective work, but who had also gotten tired of Benson, now a lieutenant with decades of experience in this department, reacting with misty-eyed dismay every time a rape occurred or someone was exposed as a lying monster?

    Ice T as Sergeant Odafin "Fin" Tutuola, Kelli Giddish as Detective Amanda Rollins, Mariska Hargitay as Lieutenant Olivia Benson, and guest star Peter Gallagher as Deputy Chief William Dodds in a scene from the season premiere. (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

    I've now seen the first two episodes of the new season, and there's reason for hope... and apprehension. (WARNING: Some spoilers ahead.) Most of SVU's issues the last few seasons have stemmed from Benson… not who the character is, but often how she is. Again, no knock on Hargitay, who seems like a solid person in real life and has to date resisted phoning it in, and this likely isn't a problem with a solution at this point, but one of those issues is credibility. As Benson has risen through the ranks, the character has gotten more involved in investigations and day-to-day police work, not less. Instead of calling Anita Van Buren (S. Epatha Merkerson) for tips on delegating and work/life balance, Benson is questioning witnesses, kicking in doors, and chasing perps in her sensible stack-heeled ankle booties. I'm all for Action!Benson, but she's management now, she's just not going to spend much time in the field. The Season 21 premiere both acknowledges that the SVU squad is severely understaffed and triples down on the non-believability by moving one detective laterally and promoting Benson again. (And, not for nothing, continuing to use Staten Island as a career fate worse than death when a recurring character gets Mike-Loganed.)

    Benson would also presumably have seen enough horrific crimes, gotten lied to enough times, and grown cynical enough about what people are capable of doing that not every witness statement and aggressive cross-examination would leave her literally open-mouthed and full-eyed. Alas, in recent seasons, Benson's become more and more of a sticky empath, an "evolution" perhaps tied to the arrival of her son, Noah, who viewers have wanted relegated to offscreen action since his adoption was finalized, but who has kept getting shot at, kidnapped, and used to mirror ongoing investigations to an aggravating degree. I can report with cautious relief that Noah is barely mentioned in the season openers, and that while we do have to revisit the melodramatic turning point where it all went soapy for the show (yes, I mean William Lewis. Yes, "AGAIN?!!"), Leight and Julie Martin's script takes a different approach that's quite affecting. As Benson and the others undergo "trauma-informed questioning" training, we see them sitting with their pasts in therapy — Ice-T in particular does a touching job remembering Fin's mother's murder — and this new investigative tool opens into a solid episode procedurally. It also sees Benson admitting to a victim, for once, that she can't promise they'll nail the men responsible. She's compassionate, but controlled, the Benson we missed, the one the show needs right now, and the one that makes sense.

    Ice T as Sergeant Odafin "Fin" Tutuola and Mariska Hargitay as Lieutenant Olivia Benson in a scene from the season premiere. (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

    I hesitate to draw too many conclusions from the premiere pair of episodes of the Leight II regime. SVU seasons usually open pretty strong. If we're doomed to more Noah-in-peril episodes this year, we won't know until a sweeps period. We also won't know whether a staff/cast infusion is coming later in the season, or whether it's going to work. For now, I choose to hope that Leight, Hargitay, and the rest of the creative team have taken some useful cues from recent nuanced series — both documentary and scripted — like Leaving Neverland and Unbelievable — and/or from repeated Twitter rants from near and far about reducing the proportions of the characters' personal lives, to move forward in a not entirely new, but still slightly improved direction.

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    Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.

    TOPICS: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, NBC, Ice-T, Kelli Giddish, Mariska Hargitay, Warren Leight , Law & Order Franchise