Dick Wolf's trickster storytelling in Law & Order SVU

By Arielle Coupe

What is the nature of allure? And what is it about allure that forces us to look even when we want to turn away? Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is full of scenes we should never see, that most of us find ethically and morally abhorrent. Just to take an example, in an episode called “Mercy” (2003), a dead infant is found in a cooler, washed up on the shores of the Hudson River. Why would we want to see that? How could that possibly be entertaining? And yet the producer, Dick Wolf, not only has us looking, but also watching over and over again (and if you have Cable or Netflix, you can literally watch scene like this every minute of the day). Not many of us could bear to witness an actual sex-crime, but these horrific scenes are the foundation of SVU, and Wolf has made them irresistibly alluring. The question of how he does it is as uncomfortable as the SVU formula is comfortable. It turns out that what it takes to make “sex-crimes” a weekly or daily addiction is a clever understanding of narrative structure and a deep knowledge of what television can do with it.


The show is beginning and the scene is over

It’s difficult to talk about comfort and sex crimes, but it is the key to Wolf’s strategy. Even before the first two notes of the theme song, we see the crime scene. Right from the beginning we are already too late. The detectives, ready to go, are too late. The victim is harmed and we, along with the detectives, are stuck with the aftermath. In “Possessed” (2011) a man breaks into his girlfriend’s apartment to find her tied up in her underwear and crying for help after being raped. This is both an ending point and a beginning. All SVU’s work this way. They are literally over before they begin, or just begin before they are over. The crime scene is the focal point of the show’s inner conflict and Wolf knows that in order to keep us watching the scene must be gruesome and in the past. Like the boyfriend in “Possessed” or the cops in “Mercy,” we are first only witnesses. Forced to watch, the only way out is to begin the investigation. We need to get away from the crime scene.


The next key is the clue and clues are always mobile. We are taken form the scene and into the present, where the crimes are a series of fragments that need to be reassembled. It is up to the detectives to put the pieces back together, by using the aftermath to restore the crime. In “Possessed,” Benson and Stabler find an old video of the victim as a child starring in a well-known porno. From here, a ring of pedophiles is uncovered. The solving of the crime is merely following the evidence into the world and witnessing what it reveals. If the opening scene is a wreck, what follows is a clean up job that tells us awful things about our supposedly pristine world.


Once the puzzle is reconstructed, the detectives of the Special Victims Unit must talk about it. Al always, they get into a legal discussion with the District Attorney, the Captain and each other about their perspectives on the crime. The crew often faces their personal morality. What would be legally appropriate versus what they would like to do. Now, what they really want to do is take revenge, but the question of retribution always is twofold: one, does the law lead to a just world, no matter the outcome of a particular case; and two, if it doesn’t, when is it okay to take the law into one’s own hands?

The beginning of talk
Wolf understands that we’re always assessing and reassessing crime, that the crime scene makes us reevaluate our everyday world. He also understands the need for revenge and creates another layer of dramatic tension. It isn’t about what happened (we have already solved that). Now it’s about what we are going to do about it. Sometimes, what is legally appropriate isn’t morally rectifiable. So in response to that problem of just results, we, along with the detectives, search for the correct set of actions to make it right. If a detective breaks a law, it must be broken gracefully. If the courtroom doesn’t serve justice, we are steered to think of what justice is outside the confines of the law. This never happens in real life, because we are not privy to the private discussions of the police, lawyers and judges. Perhaps we should feel differently about crimes if we had that access. By witnessing the detective’s moral reasoning, SVU’s formula allows them to break the law within the limits of their own ethics and by the end of each episode they always come out triumphant. Depending on your view of life, this is either a greater vision of justice or a wildly sugarcoated fantasy.


No other show uses guest stars quite like SVU. Who wouldn’t want to watch Robin Williams fooling the police, provoking innocents into rebelling and just generally being creepy? It’s what we want from Williams and rarely get in his Patch Adams, Bi-Centennial Man, Mrs. Doubtfire sappiness. SVU opens up the possibility of criminality and let’s us see aspects of the famous that generally remain hidden. What’s strange is that the famous should be so eager to unburden their celebrity in this way. Williams might be the biggest name, but Mischa Barton, John Ritter, Kathy Griffin, Hilary Duff, Henry Winkler, Martin Short, Bob Saget, Melissa Joan Hart all have heeded Wolf’s siren call to embody what we might call human kind at its worst. Perhaps these stars view the show as the perfect test of their acting abilities, a place to break free from the well-oiled branding of movie and television studios and what for some might feel like burdensome public personas. Look, Sagat’s really a bad ass. It’s not difficult to believe and that might be the case for most of the famous SVU cameos: but that’s not what Wolf is after or what the show needs to succeed. Wolf isn’t using stars so that they can stretch their acting skills, he’s using these people for what they mean.

These guest stars grab attention. They don’t lower themselves to the material, but rise above it. When we watch, we watch them and that’s part of Wolf’s genius. Without fail, we recognize unmistakable faces. What else could balance the repulsive crimes of SVU other than the structure of stardom? This is how the show controls our emotions in the face of all these heinous crimes. Wolf makes us concentrate on the glamour shot and the allure of the famous compensates for some of the shows more gruesome scenes. It’s at moments like these that a famous face can remind us that what we are watching is an act and a very familiar and rehearsed one at that.


Wolf’s use of Mariska Hargitay (Detective Olivia Benson) and Christopher Meloni (Detective Elliot Stabler) is another example of his sophisticated understanding of television and his ability to use talent in radically different ways than other television producers. Although SVU isn’t known for its great acting, both Hargitay and Meloni have maintained a sophisticated and high level of acting throughout SVU’s run. They are both adept performers. Meloni’s eyes turn bloodshot as he reveals his uncontrollable temper before a violent outburst. In opposition to Meloni’s rage, Hargitay embodies both sensitivity and moral ambiguity. She almost always has two looks for the criminals. One is disgust at what they’ve done, but the other is understanding. She is quite good at following the contours of the perp’s face with her eyes before making direct eye contact, as if she was visually searching for their motives. Still, in some ways that’s beside the point.

They are SVU and SVU is them
What Wolf needs from his lead actors aren’t the traditional star turns, but for Hargitay and Meloni to become their characters. We must not believe that they exit outside the SVU universe or in an odder way, they are the SVU universe. These actors are highly skilled but typecast and that is what Wolf needs from them—the ability to ground this world of alluring guest stars and heinous murders in an acting style that says I am SVU and I will put that world into order. It’s worth noting that neither Hargitay nor Meloni has been successful outside of SVU.


There are many young, sophisticated child actors on SVU. They have played rape victims, little killers and the newly orphaned. How many of these children are really aware of the seriousness and brutality of this show? Many of the episodes include the children not only describing their traumatizing experiences in the courtroom, but also acting out the experience itself. It’s as if it’s not enough to know that they’ve been abused, we need to have them tell us over and over again. In such a mainstream show SVU has a certain postmodern meta-narrative going for it. We watch a child come to terms with a terrible crime and then reenact it for the detectives at the same time that we’re watching a talented child actor come to terms with the meaning of a terrible crime and attempt to reenact it for actors playing detectives. Throughout this horrible ritual, not matter what, we are made to feel that the children are innocent. And that’s so even when the children are the criminals. But neither the young stars’ talent nor the viewer’s heart-wrenching reaction is the purpose of having child actors on SVU.

They are protected
Wolf needs child actors in SVU to be the victim so that we understand that this show, for all its seriousness, is a show. He knows that we know that these children would never be hurt, that there are laws and safeguards for child actors, and on top of that the entire ethos of the show is about protecting the innocent. They are the symbolic martyrs of SVU. We can relate to them emotionally, but they take the beating for us without really taking the beating. Could we really bare to witness a kid being tossed into a dumpster by his/her mother? The audience can watch the young characters being violated, because they know that these are merely actors. The rules regarding child actors protect them. Therefore, we are protected. Wolf uses child actors as the audience’s martyr, reminding us we are not the ones being violated or that anyone is being violated. In a show about violation, we are strangely reminded that we are all safe.


In any compelling series, there has to be a perfect balance of dependable content and provocative new content, the comfortable and the radical. Wolf has mastered this. It is comfortable to know the manifest structure of the show and yet every single episode still manages to pull unexpected turns. Without this formula, the show would be painfully unbearable.
What's the real subject, guys?
©CCA Arts Review & Arielle Coupe

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