23 December 2004 | mentalcritic
A worthy follow-up
Around 2000, Law & Order had become one of the longest-running television shows based on a fictional premise, although it still has a long way to go in order to catch up with the record holders. Such was the continued popularity of the series that creator Dick Wolf saw a market for a spin-off, and was obviously glad to oblige. Hence, over ten years after Law & Order burst onto the airwaves, Special Victims Unit was born, so to speak.
Of course, the show had a little problem finding its feet at first. This is only natural, even for a series spun off from a successful formula. The challenges Special Victims Unit faced included a major deviation from the normal Law & Order structure. The segment dealing with the trials of suspects was dispensed with, emphasising for the most part the efforts of the detectives to bring victims a sense of justice. As the series progressed, work with a District Attorney began to find its way into the plots, but in a manner more complementary to the work of the detectives.
As in any series, the key ingredient is finding sympathetic leads that the audience can relate to. Where the original Law & Order eventually found solid ground in the form of Jerry Orbach, Special Victims Unit more or less got this element right from the start. Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni play so well off one another that it is certainly going to make life difficult for the unlucky actors who get to replace them. Another side benefit of the reduction in emphasis on the legal dealings is that we get to see more of the personal lives of the detectives, without them necessarily having to be worked into the plot. Every now and again, insight into the impact the job has on Stabler's family life in particular is offered, and it works wonderfully.
The fundamental weakness in Special Victims Unit to date has been the supporting cast. Richard Belzer's schtick can get tiring, but adds the ironic comic touch (delivered so brilliantly by Orbach in the original series), which Meloni seems incapable of delivering. One has to wonder, however, whose bright idea it was to cast Ice-T as a replacement for one of the early detectives, as no matter how hard he tries to sound the part, one cannot believe him as a detective. Especially not one in this particular squad. The relative underdevelopment of most of the support characters does not help.
Another challenge faced with every episode of Law & Order in any form is to come up with cases interesting enough to grab the attention. The original series is faltering slightly on this score, but when it does succeed, it succeeds enough to more than make up for all the average stories. Special Victims Unit, on the other hand, sets a consistent level for each episode. Because of the extreme nature of the crimes being investigated, they each become alike for the most part. It is the little details that make the big difference. This is, of course, a much better deal than the other spin-off, where the stories are consistent in how uninteresting they are.
In all, Special Victims Unit is a well worthy follow-up to the original Law & Order. It is not recommended for sensitive viewers, but as an insight into the lot of those who have to clean up the mess in one of the modern world's most sexually violent societies, it works brilliantly. It even has potential to get better.