I prefer my TV super-positive. I have difficulty watching things I know to be violent, dark, depressing, etc.
And yet, I am endlessly sucked in by LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT.
SVU, as it’s commonly known, is currently in its 15th season of busting rapists, pedophiles and miscellaneous, vaguely-sexually-related criminals. It has hung onto its original cast for a remarkably long time, though it finally seems to be moving on — co-lead Christopher Meloni departed three seasons back (possibly because he realized he had busted every pervert in New York — the state, not the city), while Richard Belzer’s oft-crossed-over Detective Munch recently retired and Dann Florek’s Capt. Cragen from the original L&O (“the mothership”) is following suit.
Ice-T will still likely be around to express disbelief at whatever commonly-known perverse act they’ve encountered this week:
SVU’s run continuously on NBC since 1999, but its greatest contribution to the public consciousness is the reruns on USA, one of the few cable channels I still get. There are, to my counting, an average of four SVU marathons per week, not counting how a marathon from the earlier part of the day will get rerun in late night. As John Mulaney points out in the above stand-up act, this provides an excuse for all manner of horrifying violent sex acts to be described at three in the afternoon. Occasionally, USA blanks out some saucier language, but overall, it’s okay because we’re only TOLD about the horrific acts, not SHOWN them, and the bad guys either get caught or shot to death or something.
The network seems vaguely aware of how absurd it is that such a violent, horrifying show is practically their flagship, particularly now that they need to use it to plug more holes in their schedule with MONK and BURN NOTICE having concluded their runs. Marathons are based around the most random themes possible (the most recent one was “What would B.D. do?” after the exposition-providing shrink played by B.D. Wong), and commercials have taken on a self-referential air, with the announcer pointing out that the most important thing in SVU is to “never crack a smile” or tourists to NYC getting directions from locals who recall locations based on where a dismembered corpse was found in a particular episode.
With USA recently acquiring reruns of MODERN FAMILY, there have been a series of commercials joking about how those shows have plenty in common. I’m more worried about young viewers who tune in for a mini-marathon about to start and get the end of some episode with a blood-covered stab-victim. A recent marathon featured all guest stars who went on to be on MODERN FAMILY, which could have resulted in even more confusion.
As you can tell, I’ve been sucked into these marathons. An episode ends, and another one literally begins right after — they reduce the credits to near-microscopic size during the thrilling finale of each ep, so once you see “EXECUTIVE PRODUCER DICK WOLF” and hear the NBC/Universal tone, you immediately hear a new, “In the criminal justice system, sexually-based offenses are considered especially heinous…”
It’s gotten to where I see a rerun of THE OFFICE or 30 ROCK and hear that tone at the end, I have the Pavlovian reaction of starting to utter, “in the criminal justice system…”
The self-contained nature of each episode makes it easy to get sucked in. There’s almost always a bizarre, recognizable guest star: Zack Morris from SAVED BY THE BELL! Jerry Lewis (not playing a rapist, thank god)! Luke Perry! Melissa Joan Hart! Ludacris, who actually did a pretty good job! It’s enough to get your attention and carry you through to the end of the episode, at which point, as I’ve said, another begins.
Wikipedia episode guides have let me place most of the USA-rerun episodes in a period from seasons 6-12. That’s a run longer than most “regular” shows, but there’s enough turnover in the writing styles of SVU that this period is particularly notable for the sheer number of gonzo plotlines.
The first season of SVU was an attempt to do a slightly-more-personal version of the “mothership” show, with more inter-office subplots and such. By season 2, they’d retooled, added Ice-T and glasses-wearing ADA Stephanie March, and made it more of a bizarre, twisty procedural.
There were some crazed eps in that run — I’ll never forget, no matter how hard I try, the one that starts with a Michael Jackson-esque toy shop owner and somehow ends with Cindy Williams from LAVERNE & SHIRLEY faking her granddaughter’s cancer with mercury poisoning — but by those later seasons, there was a distinct sense that the writers were out of ideas, not only for the overall show, but within individual episodes.
While earlier episodes have a weirdly compelling quality as you start to realize just how awful the secrets of the guest stars of the week are (there’s a reason possible killer Chad Lowe is so terrified of mother Margot Kidder!), later episodes have the quality of, “This isn’t shocking enough, so let’s throw in a TWIST!” This TWIST! factor has the unique quality of causing the episodes to forget what they’re about, sometimes within the first few minutes.
The example I keep using is “Avatar,” from Season 9. Cold open: A woman is sexually assaulted by her sister/roommate’s finance. But wait! It turns out he has a sleep disorder and doesn’t remember doing it!
This plot is then completely forgotten as it turns out the sister is missing, and she had a secret life in a Second Life online community analogue, and then it turns out she was stalked by a convicted kidnapper (Kevin Tighe, Locke’s dad on LOST!) whose victim was never found, and then they figure out where she is when they realize the kidnapper has a cabin in his virtual world, and they can triangulate the location based on the angle of the sun, and you have Det. Benson literally yelling at the community’s webmaster, “A woman’s LIFE IS AT STAKE! TURN ON THE SUN!”
For good measure, it turns out the original kidnapping victim was still alive and in love with the kidnapper and hiding out at the cabin, so to end the ep on a maximum down note, he sees her again at the end and goes, horrified, “You got OLD.”
Holy God, you cannot believe how disgusted I am with myself for not only watching but remembering this, now that I’ve recapped it.
The show has, during these years, a real tendency to take something vaguely realistic and twist it into…something else. The infamous crime where a fake cop called in to a fast-food restaurant and convinced the manager to torment an employee was turned into a riveting, skin-crawling drama in the film COMPLIANCE. A few years before, SVU did an ep on it…which somehow turned into being about Robin Williams as an anti-authority mastermind who puts Det. Benson in a morality-questioning deathtrap.
The original point was somewhat blurred, though Williams did get an Emmy nod out of it. I Googled.
Aside from procrastination and living alone, why on Earth do I keep getting sucked into SVU episodes? It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times.
Here’s how I’ve broken it down:
1) There aren’t many other scripted shows on during the day. Whether it’s morning, noon or late at night, it’s at least something that has a plot.
2) There’s a brisk pace — from the constantly-moving camera during the scenes where one cop after another provides needed exposition to the L&O trademark “CHUNG! CHUNG!” blackout title cards from scene to scene, the show moves. You rarely have time to get bored before some new lurid detail comes to the surface.
3) And as I’ve said above: Morbid curiosity. Where is this going to go? What insane TWIST! will occur next? And can you randomly figure out which season this episode is from based on such factors as the ADA, the storytelling style, or just the length of Marsika Hargitay’s hair? (It’s shoulder-length Season One, short and butch for most of the middle seasons, then gradually gets longer again starting at about Season 11).
More recently, I’ve found myself increasingly wary of the the show’s “reality,” TWIST!s aside. The cartoonist Dean Trippe did an excellent comic called “Something Terrible” (you can download it here) that deals with his own sexual assault as a child. Almost as horrific as the event was that Trippe had, from constant plots on TV shows, been convinced that because of this, he would become like his attacker as an adult, and was afraid to be around children for years as an adult. He later found out this wasn’t the case.
You’d get a different impression if you watched SVU. The closest I’d seen to their explaining that victims of childhood sexual abused DON’T grow up to become pedophiles was one episode with Michael Shannon (who’s been the creepy guy in pretty much everything else he’s been in), who’s been afraid of being around his baby son because of that fear, the result of his being molested by his coach as a child…and it’s later explained that the coach was himself molested, and another of the kids DID become a pedo himself as an adult.
It ends with Shannon realizing he is a good person and finally able to let himself be with his son, but how many inaccurate, manipulative stereotypes have been put forth because of that story?
Yes, I need to ween myself off this.
The show has, in its post Meloni/Stabler years, been run by Warren Leight, an L&O veteran who more recently ran the excellent cable dramas IN TREATMENT and LIGHTS OUT. Leight is an intelligent, cerebral writer, and the episodes under his reign the show has toned down the insane twists to tell relatively straightforward tales of professional men and women who battle human monsters, and the toll it takes on them.
It’s not nearly as much fun. And immediately after typing that, I realize I’ve just used “fun” to describe a show about rapists and pedophiles.
Still — they had Cybill Shepherd in a story that basically redid the Trayvon Martin case with Paula Deen as the shooter! And it was played straight! If you’re going to do some ridiculous mash-up of a distasteful celebrity story and one of the most tragic miscarriages of American justice in recent years, how can you expect people to take it seriously?
(Though to their credit: The brilliant stage actor Raul Esparza is the current ADA, and his dry, irate presence is worth tuning in for, even when he’s in a deathly-contrived take on the Anthony Wiener scandal.)
As with most bits of junk TV, the easiest way to detox is to spend the time wasted watching it doing things that are productive and pro-social. I might have to resort to that for SVU, particularly with a new year coming up and not much TV on during those winter months.
Still, it’ll take a long time for those words to get out of my head: “In the criminal justice system…”
CHUNG! CHUNG! indeed.