By Paul Simpson
There are eight million stories in the naked city, so it was claimed back in the 1960s, and the producers of NBC's Law & Order: SVU seem intent on recounting every single one that relates to their particular speciality – Special Victims. The show is now in its twentieth season, making it the longest-running non-animated series currently in production.
As SVU's opening narration explains: "In the criminal justice system, sexually based offences are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories."
Originally subtitled Sex Crimes, SVU hit the airwaves in 1999, named after the genuine New York Police Department unit who investigate sexually based offences. It's the first spin-off of Dick Wolf's equally long-running series Law & Order, which focused on the police investigation and then prosecution by the district attorney's office of crimes, and was specifically inspired by the "Preppie Killer", Robert Chambers, who murdered a jogger in New York's Central Park in 1986.
Wolf had used Chambers' crime as the basis of an early Law & Order episode, but found that elements of it, particularly the way in which Chambers tried to sexualise his victim during his trial, haunted him. He felt that a series that focused on such crimes could help to explain what leads to such abhorrent acts.
This fascination was passed on to the show's producers and writers, and created an atmosphere where accuracy was paramount. Writer Jonathan Greene explained that the season 2 -11 showrunner Neil Baer "instilled in all of us this fascination with how the mind works, and the nexus of where the mind and the law cross".
Star Mariska Hargitay is a trained rape counsellor, and made Baer take a tour of a rape treatment centre to ensure that their depiction of the places and the way in which victims experience them were portrayed accurately. "I'm sure a couple of the writers are on the feds' most wanted Internet predators list too, because they're doing all this research on paedophilia," her colleague Diane Neal noted.
The show hasn't shied away from controversial topics: the equating by some paedophiles of their urges with those of gay men and women was tackled in a season eleven episode, with Baer commenting: "We obviously don't take the side of the paedophiles, but we do take the side that it's hard-wired, and what do you do about it?"
Drawing from real-life cases is a hallmark of the Law & Order franchise – indeed, on at least one occasion, they seem to have predicted a case. The central tenets of an investigation are discussed by the writers, and, as producer Rene Balcer explained back in 2009: "We look… beyond the headline, we try and find something that's interesting about the case. Does it bring to life certain issues, social issues, political issues, even issues concerning human nature, human psychology?"
The producers have to walk the fine line between a realistic portrayal of rapists, paedophiles and the like, and the restrictions of broadcast on network television (which themselves have loosened over the two decades the show has been on air). It's a show that can take its toll on those involved – original showrunner Robert Palm left after the first season because of its upsetting subject matter, and the show's regular cast changes often hinge on the characters' reactions to what they're dealing with, day in, day out.
"The world keeps evolving, and there are a lot of dark areas that we need to look at," seasons fifteen-seventeen showrunner Warren Leight pointed out. "Part of my challenge and everybody's challenge here is to keep it fresh and to not let a groove turn into a rut, and that can happen for any show at any time."
Recent seasons have seen fictionalised versions of Steven Avery (as featured in Netflix's Making a Murderer) and and "moment of madness" college student Brock Turner appear. The legal battle over treatment for baby Charlie Gard inspired an episode earlier this year.
Similar cases turn up in other procedural shows, but, with only 42 minutes to introduce the case and solve it (and usually feature some aspect of their core characters' personal lives), there's rarely time to delve too deeply into the psychology of the individuals involved – both perpetrators and investigators.
Law & Order: SVU doesn't try to present black-and-white answers, and it's a must-see for anyone with an interest in how law enforcement tackles such divisive topics.