One of my favourite shows to binge-watch on a Saturday night with Haagen Daz is Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. I’ve been a Law & Order fan since I was 7 years old, I used to watch the original with my father, and when I discovered SVU, I was overjoyed by the presence of a woman detective, Olivia Benson, a cynical old Jewish detective, John Munch, and a Native American detective, Chester Lake. I was hooked and it became my favourite Law & Order.
I hadn’t watched any incarnation of Law & Order in a while, when I decided to give Special Victims Unit a spin again after I figured out how to get American Netflix and downloaded the missing seasons.
As an adult and a feminist, I was a bit more aware and critical of the show. I noticed that the production values were much lower than on the original Law & Order, the plots more sensationalist and the tone more campy and preachy than I recalled as a child. But I still loved it and ate it up.
I watched the later seasons that had aired after I’d stopped paying attention to SVU, and I noticed a definite shift in some aspects of the show, some of which were great, others, I was definitely not to keen on.
The biggest positive changes in my book included several stabs at being more trans and queer friendly. Having Dr. Huang be openly gay (and played by the openly gay B.D Wong) helped greatly, and Huang often proved to be the voice of reason and compassion for a lot of issues, especially sex work, trans issues, children’s rights. There were a few episodes involving trans women that didn’t involve them being perverts or murderers (or murdered), which is a low bar to set, but that’s what the majority of television has set. I loved the inclusion of Sister Peg, a no-nonsense compassionate nun who does street involved advocacy for sex workers. I also noticed that as the seasons went on, there were a great many more interracial families portrayed, with no commentary or awkward big deals being made about them being interracial.
But the bigger changes were much more awful and much more difficult to ignore. The writers seemed to enjoy amping up the amount of suffering and tribulations that Olivia Benson in particular had to go through, but enjoying showing her pain in graphic detail. Elliot Stabler (fan nickname, “Unstabler”) who always had a violent, uncontrollable streak, became not only more physically violent, but more willing to cross the lines even with people who weren’t suspects. The greatest and most awful difference that I noticed was a huge escalation in the number of times the detectives, attorneys, and others would casually rely on the threat of prison rape in order to intimidate suspects, witnesses, and others.
I’m still watching, but I’m keeping myself confined to the older seasons. My cutoff point, my opinion of exactly when the show jumped the shark, is the episode where Elliot Stabler goes undercover as a crooked airport security employee who wishes to make extra money smuggling exotic animals (Yes, that happens).