What is Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (also known as Law & Order: SVU, or simply SVU) is an American drama television program about the Special Victims Unit in the fictitious 16th Precinct of New York.


It is the first of four spin-offs of the long-running, award-winning crime drama Law & Order set in New York City, currently airing on NBC. SVU began in the United States on September 20, 1999, and stars Christopher Meloni as Detective Elliot Stabler and Mariska Hargitay as Detective Olivia Benson.

Law & Order: SVU can currently be seen on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on NBC. In addition, the show is shown on the USA Network. The show is currently in its eighth season.

The show originally aired on Monday nights at 10 p.m. ET for the first nine episodes, from September 20 through November 29, 1999. It was then shifted to Friday nights at 10 p.m. ET on January 7, 2000, and remained in that time slot through the end of season four on May 16, 2003. SVU was placed in its current time slot for the season 5 opener on September 23, 2003 on Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. ET and occasionally runs previous shows on Friday and Saturday nights.

SVU is currently the highest rated series of the Law & Order franchise, and is one of NBC's top rated shows.

Series Overview

The following statement is spoken at the beginning of every episode, except the first episode of the third season (in which this statement is replaced by a statement relevant to the September 11, 2001 attacks):

In the criminal justice system, sexually-based offenses 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….

What does the show investigate?

Mostly sex crimes. Unlike the original Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU follows a distinct division of the New York City Police Department: the Special Victims Unit (aka the Sex Crimes division, as explained in the first episode). As its name implies, the detectives in this division investigate crimes involving sexual assault, the very young, or the very elderly, as well as any crime loosely connected with any of the three. Their unit is based out of the fictitious 16th Precinct (sometimes called Manhattan SVU).

What is the Story behind the Show?

The series was originally proposed under the title Sex Crimes, and unrelated to the Law & Order brand. NBC thought the title was too harsh, and after discussions between network executives and Dick Wolf (creator of Law & Order) it became part of the L&O brand, debuting as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Is it Different than the Original ?

SVU, like Criminal Intent has the distinction of breaking from the original series' split storytelling format (where the police detectives investigate and arrest the criminals in the first half hour, and the district attorneys prosecute them in the second half), by focusing on the SVU detectives throughout the entire episode.

In many episodes, but not all, the viewers will see the case go to trial. In the first season, the program relied on a rotating mix of Assistant District Attorneys, including ADA Abbie Carmichael (played by Angie Harmon), a character on the original Law & Order, but the main focus always remains on the SVU detectives. Often in the first season, the "Law" is only represented by the detectives going to court to give evidence against a defendant in a previous, off-screen case.

Any Character Drama?

In addition, the show is more character-driven than the typical police procedural, with a less-than-complete focus on the main case. For example, detectives Stabler and Benson each signed up to work for the Special Victims Unit for different reasons: Stabler felt a moral responsibility to protect all people from the criminals that they had to deal with, especially because he had four children of his own, and later dealing with issues involving an abusive father and anger issues that drove away his wife and children. Benson was the child of a pregnancy resulting from the rape of her mother by an as-yet unknown assailant.

Any Controversial Subjects?

SVU contains by far the most controversial subject matter of any of the L&O series, focusing mostly on rape and child abuse, as well as episodes based on real incidents and current hot topic issues, such as homosexuality, physician-assisted suicide, abortion, and gun control.

Is there a Real NYPD SVU squad?

The NYPD does have a real unit that investigates sex crimes, however it is known as the "Special Victims Squad" which are housed in various Patrol Boroughs like in Manhattan (similar to how L&O: SVU is depicted in the show). In addition to the different name, the real Special Victims Squad only investigates the following types of cases:

  • Any child under 13 years of age that is the victim of any sex crime or attempted sex crime by any person.
  • Any child under 11 years of age who is the victim of abuse by a parent or person legally responsible for the care of the child.
  • Any victim of Rape (all degrees) or Attempted Rape (all degrees)
  • Any victim of Criminal Sexual Act (all degrees) or Attempted Criminal Sexual Act (all degrees)
  • Victims of Aggravated Sexual Abuse (all degrees
  • Victims of Sexual Abuse 1st Degree

The Special Victims Squad does not investigate any murder, robbery or child pornography cases. Murders and robberies are investigated by precinct detective squads. If a sex crime is involved, the Special Victims Squad may assist in the investigation. Child pornography is investigated by the NYPD Vice Enforcement Unit's Sexual Exploitation of Children Unit.


Season 1 (20 September 1999 - 21 May 2000)
Season 2 (20 October 2000 - 11 May 2001)
Season Three (28 September 2001 - 17 May 2002)
Season 4 (27 September 2002 - 16 May 2003)
Season 5 (23 September 2003 - 18 May 2004)
Season 6 (21 September 2004 - 24 May 2005)
Season 7 (20 September 2005 - 16 May 2006)
Season 8 (19 September 2006 - )



  • 2001 Edgar Award Best Episode in a Television Series Teleplay (Michael R. Perry, for "Limitations")
  • 2003 Edgar Award Best Episode in a Television Series Teleplay (Dawn DeNoon and Lisa Marie Petersen, for "Waste")
  • 2005 Golden Globe Award Best Actress in a Television Drama Series (Mariska Hargitay)
  • 2006 Emmy Award Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (Mariska Hargitay)


  • 2004 Screen Actors Guild Best Female Actor in a Drama Series (Mariska Hargitay)
  • 2006 Screen Actors Guild Best Female Actor in a Drama Series (Mariska Hargitay)

Principal Cast

Supporting Characters

Two of the regular characters have appeared in two other NBC series: Captain Donald "Don" Cragen (played by Dann Florek), who was on the first three seasons of Law & Order and Detective John Munch (played by Richard Belzer), formerly a Baltimore detective on Homicide: Life on the Street. This character also made appearances on Law & Order, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, Arrested Development, The Beat and The X-Files.

Supporting cast during season one included Dean Winters as Munch's partner, Detective Brian Cassidy, and Michelle Hurd as Detective Monique Jeffries. Cassidy was an immigrant detective, just assigned to the unit, who transferred to narcotics because he was having trouble dealing with some of the disturbing cases the division dealt with regularly.

Jeffries was originally a minor character, but when Dean Winters left the show midseason, she played a more prominent role as Munch's partner. Hurd played the role for a few episodes during the second season, after which she left the show.

Casting Changes

The show, like its parent show, has had several cast changes, although the original four credited cast members (Christopher Meloni- , Mariska Hargitay, Richard Belzer, and Dann Florek) have remained with the show through the first seven seasons.

Detective Tutoula

After Michelle Hurd left the series, her Monique Jeffries character was replaced with Detective Odafin "Fin" Tutoala (played by rapper-turned-actor, Ice-T); he has been on the show since season two. While technically Munch's partner, Fin has become much more prominent on the show than Munch; while Munch usually remains at the station. Fin is much more active in aiding the main characters' investigations, and is often sent on undercover assignments as well.

Alexandra Cabot

Also in season two the show added Stephanie March, as Assistant District Attorney Alexandra "Alex"Cabot, as a permanent supporting ADA to the show. In season five, Alex was shot and presumed dead, but actually was placed in the Witness Protection Program for her safety. Casey Novak, portrayed by Diane Neal, replaced Cabot. However, former ADA Cabot came out of Witness Protection and returned to testify against the man who gunned her down.

In early 2006, Stephanie March reprised the character of Alexandra Cabot in the now-defunct series Conviction.

Dr. George Huang

B.D. Wong, began appearing as Dr. George Huang, a forensic psychiatrist on loan from the FBI, in the penultimate episode of season two. He was a frequently recurring character during season three before being elevated to contract status starting with season four.

ME Melinda Warner

Tamara Tunie, as ME Melinda Warner, is the division's current Medical Examiner on the show. Having played the role in virtually every episode of the last three seasons, Tamara Tunie was added to the opening credits for the show's seventh season.

Casey Novak

As of 2003, the show's most recent cast change came after the fourth episode of season five ("Loss"), when Stephanie March was replaced with Diane Neal as ADA Casey Novak.

Dani Beck

In 2006, Connie Nielsen was cast as Det. Dani Beck, a multi-lingual warrants detective who comes from a specialized unit, to fill in for Mariska Hargitay while she was on maternity leave. She is scheduled to appear in six episodes. Det. Beck’s husband, a policeman, was murdered in 2002.

Other guest stars

In season one, Reiko Aylesworth (best known as Michelle Dessler from the FOX television series 24) played ADA Erica Alden in episodes "Slaves," "Remorse," and "Contact."

In seasons one to three, Lance Reddick (best known for his roles on two HBO television series, Desmond Mobay/Detective Johnny Basil on Oz and Cedric Daniels on The Wire) had a recurring role as the Medical Examiner.

From season three on, Judith Light has had multiple appearances as Bureau Chief and Executive Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Donnelly, turned judge in season 7. One other character that was important was Detective Ken Briscoe (nephew of Lennie Briscoe), played by Chris Orbach (son of Jerry Orbach). He appeared in early episodes of the show, along with his father.

Mary Stuart Masterson appeared in three episodes of season six ("Weak", "Contagious", and "Identity") and one episode of season seven ("Ripped") as psychiatrist Dr. Rebecca Hendrix, who attended the police academy with Olivia Benson and was on the NYPD force for two years. Elliot Stabler turned to Hendrix for comfort in season seven after a confrontation in a courthouse restroom with his former partner, Pete Breslin.

Joel de la Fuente has had some recurring roles as Rueben Morales, a computer expert who helps the detectives with online evidence. In the Season 7 episode "Web," he played a major part in the investigation of a young man who was running a web site featuring himself and other underage boys. During the investigation, Morales told Stabler that he had given his nephew a computer as a gift. The nephew had met and been molestated by an online predator via the computer and Morales joined SVU to ease his guilt and try to save other children from that fate. It is possible that, like Tunie's and Wong's, his role may be expanded in the coming seasons.

Caren Browning has had numerous appearances over the past four seasons as Crime Scene Unit (CSU) Captain Judith Siper, while Mike Doyle has appeared on numerous occasions as CSU Forensic Technician Ryan O'Halloran over the same time period. Welly Yang has appeared numerous times as an unnamed (although sometimes identified as "Georgie" in the credits) CSU technician. Paula Garcés also played a recurring CSU technician, named Millie Vizcarrondo. In the Season 7 episode "Name," involving the disappearances of several Puerto Rican boys, she teamed up with Det. Stabler and played a significant part in the investigation.

In addition, the show has had many guest stars, including cast from Law & Order, including Jesse L. Martin as Detective Ed Green, Angie Harmon as ADA Abbie Carmichael, Sam Waterston as Executive ADA Jack McCoy, Steven Hill as District Attorney Adam Schiff, Dianne Wiest as Interim DA Nora Lewin, and Fred Dalton Thompson as District Attorney Arthur Branch. In addition to that, a number of other doctors appeared on the show from time to time, including Leslie Hendrix as her L&O character, ME Elizabeth Rodgers, Carolyn McCormick as her L&O character, psychologist Elizabeth Olivet, and J.K. Simmons as his L&O character, psychiatrist Emil Skoda.

Prominent actors appearing as defense lawyers include Annie Potts as Sophie Devere, John Cullum as Barry Moredock (Alex Cabot's former law school professor), David Thornton (actor) as Lionel Granger, Ned Eisenberg as Roger Kressler, CCH Pounder as Carolyn Maddox, and Illeana Douglas as Gina Berardo.

Other high-profile guests have included Anthony Anderson, Jacqueline Bisset, Lewis Black, Dean Cain, Billy Campbell, Lynda Carter, Natalie Cole, Dana Delaney, Emily Deschanel, Doug E. Doug, Sherilyn Fenn, Bobby Flay (Stephanie March 's husband), Sherilyn Fenn Joe MortonPatrick Flueger, Kelli Garner, Pam Grier, Michael Gross, Darrell Hammond, Mickey Hargitay (Mariska Hargitay's late father), Bret Harrison, Peter Hermann (Mariska Hargitay's husband), David Keith, Margot Kidder, Shirley Knight (who also guested stared on Law and Order), Michael Learned, Angela Lansbury, Piper Laurie, Sharon Lawrence, Chad Lowe, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Andrew McCarthy, Kyle MacLachlan, Kellie Martin, Marlee Matlin, Mark McGrath, Matthew Modine, Rita MorenoAlfred Molina, Kate Mulgrew, Ming Na, James Naughton, Martha Plimpton, Lou Diamond Philips, Patricia Richardson, Shawn Reaves, John Ritter as well as his son Jason Ritter, Anthony Rapp, Gloria Reuben, Jane Seymour, Brandon Routh before he was famous, Martin Short, Susan Saint James Brittany Snow, Shannyn Sossamon, Mary Steenburgen, Eric Stoltz, Richard Thomas, Ricky Ullman, Lea Thompson, Tom Verica, Estella Warren, Henry Winkler and Mare Winningham.

Marcia Gay Harden has appeared twice (Season 7, "Raw" and Season 8, "Informed") as FBI agent Dana Lewis, who uses her undercover alias, Star Morrison, to infiltrate a group of white supremacists and an ecoterrorism ring.

The seventh-season opener featured Robert Patrick and Robert Walden. The season seven finale featured Brittany Snow. Early eighth-season guest stars include Jerry Lewis (as Munch's homeless uncle), Robert Vaughn, Charles Shaughnessy, and Leslie Caron.

Plot Inspirations

Like its predecessor, many Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episodes are clear references to high-profile real-life cases, and are based on thinly-veiled dramatizations of these actual events, though the particulars and outcome may end up to be quite different.

  • The Season 1 episode, "Uncivilized", comes from the Leopold and Loeb case.
  • The Season 1 finale, "Slaves", was based on the case of Cameron Hooker who abducted Carol Smith and proceeded to torture and use her as a sex slave for seven years.
  • The Season 2 episode, "Baby Killer", was based on the Kayla Rolland case.
  • The Season 3's finale, "Silence", dealt with allegations of sexual abuse performed by Catholic clergymen, echoing the real-life proliferation of Roman Catholic sex abuse cases.
  • The Season 4 premiere, "Chameleon," deals with a prostitute who repeatedly murders her clients and claims it was self-defense every time. This is based on the real-life story of Aileen Wuornos.
  • In the Season 4 episode "Angels" the plot of young Latin boys being taken from their foreign homes and raped by their kidnapper, is quite similar to the case of Michael Skult in Arkansas.
  • The Season 4 episode, "Damaged", shares several similarities to the case of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, a husband and wife duo who raped and murdered several teenage girls in the late 1980s and early 90s. Similarities include; the female involved drugging her own underage sister to be raped by herself and boyfriend, all while taping the crime; a plea bargain hastily made to the female that is undermined when later evidence, namely video tapes, shows that the female was a willing accomplice, not a compliant victim; and the male claiming that the female was responsible for all the murders. The Season 6 episode "Pure" with guest star Martin Short also had similarities with this case.
  • The Season 4 episode, "Appearances", has superficial similarities to the JonBenét Ramsey case, as it questions the motives of parents who put their young daughters in beauty pageants. The parents are quickly cleared of any charges, though.
  • The Season 4 episode, "Pandora", has similarities to the Operation Avalanche investigation. In this episode, an investigation into a woman's murder leads SVU detectives to a a wealthy suburban couple who are found to be operating a global system for processing credit card payments used to access child pornography websites.
  • Another Season 4 episode, "Perfect", is loosely based on two unrelated events, the scandal surrounding the mysterious death of Lisa McPherson and the abduction of Elizabeth Smart.
  • The Season 5 episode "Serendipity" is based on the story of John Schneeberger, who put a tube of his patient's blood in his arm to fool the Kipling, Saskatchewan police.
  • The Season 5 episode "Hate" is based on accounts of anti-Arab reprisals following the September 11, 2001 attacks.
  • The Season 5 episode, "Sick", is a clear reference to the allegations of pedophilia against Michael Jackson, and the questionable credibility of some of the accusers. In the episode, a wealthy, eccentric celebrity comes under scrutiny for his bizarre practice of inviting little children over to his childlike mansion.
  • The Season 5 episode "Mean" about the murder of a teenage girl by her so-called clique of friends due to the jealousy of the leader was loosely based on the 1992 case of Shanda Sharer in Illinois (see Melinda Loveless) and a similar case in California in 1989.
  • The Season 5 episode, "Control", which was also the 100th episode of the show, is based on the John Jamelske kidnappings in DeWitt, NY.
  • The Season 6 episode "Charisma" is partially based on David Koresh and the Waco Siege of the Branch Davidians.
  • The Season 6 episode, "Scavenger", is about a long-unsolved cases of rapes and murders by a serial killer known only by the moniker "RDK", for "rape, dismember, kill". An actual serial killer from the 1970s was known as "BTK" for "bind, torture, kill", and his crime streak of almost 30 years went unsolved until 2005.
  • The Season 6 episode "Identity," about brother-sister twins who are actually identical male twins who had attempted sexual reassignment and bizarre therapy sessions to create the gender reassignment is based on the "John/Joan" case of Brian and David Reimer.
  • Season 6's episode, "Game", features a popular, violent video game that is blamed for inspiring the hit-and-run murder of a prostitute. The game featured and the lawsuit following it closely resemble the video game franchise Grand Theft Auto, which has been blamed for several violent crimes committed by young game players.
  • The Season 6 episode, "Pure", features a wife who lures virgin girls into a dangerous situation so they can be raped by her husband. The details are almost exactly the same as the real-life case of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka.
  • The Season 6 finale, "Goliath", deals with soldiers who return from a post in Afghanistan experiencing long-term side-effects from a fictional drug called "Quiniam", that soldiers were forced to take. This paralleled real-life allegations that the Lariam being given to soldiers in Afghanistan could cause psychosis and suicidal thoughts in some soldiers.
  • The Season 7 episode, "Name", was based on the 1957 case of The Boy in the Box which is still unsolved.
  • The Season 7 episode, "Starved", took several plot details from the Terri Schiavo case.
  • The Season 7 episode, "Storm", had the search for a child molestor who had taken three girls from post-Katrina New Orleans, touching on the reports of missing molestors in the wake of the storm. It turns out he was also involved in the theft of anthrax from a government lab in New Orleans, a reporter taking info on the story from Olivia and publishing it. When he refused to name his source, he went to jail, in a nod to the Judith Miller case.
  • The Season 7 episode, "Gone", is based on the Natalee Holloway case.
  • The Season 7 episode, "Class", is based on the cheating scandal of Elizabeth Paige Laurie.
  • The Season 7 episode, "Fault", is based on the case of Joseph E. Duncan III who abducted Dylan and Shasta Groene after murdering the rest of their family.
  • The Season 7 episode, "Web", about a teenaged boy who takes erotic pictures of himself and posts them on self-created Internet pay sites to get money from internet pedophile subscribers is based loosely on the story of Justin Berry.
  • The Season 7 finale, "Influence", is based on the controversy regarding actor Tom Cruise and his views on psychiatry, with the perpetrator having refused to take her medication because of a rock star's statements regarding the evils of psychiatric medication, leading to tragic results.
  • The Season 8 premiere, "Informed," about a young woman involved with an ecoterrorism cell, notes several real examples of ecoterrorism, including the 2001 arson of several new homes under construction on Long Island, the 2003 arson of a Hummer dealership in California, and the death threats against animal testing labs such as Huntingdon Life Sciences. In addition, a suspect is arrested at a protest against a manufacturer of genetically modified food. The episode also notes that ecoterrorism is the FBI's top domestic terrorism threat; in 2005, an FBI official made a statement exactly to that effect.
  • Season 8 episode "Uncle" with Jerry Lewis ends similarily to the Andrew Goldstein case where a homeless man pushes someone to their death on the subway tracks.


  • Law & Order: Special Victims Unit follows the same opening style of its parent Law & Order.
  • SVU, like every other spinoff, uses a re-mixed version of the theme music from its parent show Law & Order.
  • Prior to September 2001, SVU's opening sequence featured two separate shots of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. After September 11, the show's opening sequence changed, with generic city shots replacing the World Trade Center. The original shots can be seen in syndicated episodes.
  • From the second season on, the franchise convention of the characters walking towards the camera at the end of the opening sequence was ditched and replaced by the cast gathered in front of a desk. This characteristic was symbolic of the large credited cast (8 members as of 2006).
  • The photo in the opening credits for Dann Florek (from the beginning of the show) and Ice-T (starting with the second episode of season 2) have not changed since they first appeared on the show. The photo for Mariska Hargitay has changed four times (Season 1 has one photo, seasons 2-4 and the first four episodes of season 5 have another, the rest of season 5 has a third, and seasons 6-8 have a fourth). Christopher Meloni, Richard Belzer and B.D. Wong got new photos starting with the fifth episode of season 5 (coinciding with the debut of Diane Neal as ADA Casey Novak). Diane Neal had one photo for season five, a second for seasons 6 and 7, and a new photo for season 8. Tamara Tunie, who first appeared in the opening credits in season 7, has a new photo for season 8.
  • This is one of seven series in which the character Detective John Munch, played by Richard Belzer, has appeared. Others include Homicide: Life on the Street, Law & Order, The X-Files, The Beat, Law & Order: Trial by Jury and Arrested Development.
  • Jerry Orbach (Detective Lennie Briscoe), Jesse L. Martin (Detective Ed Green), Fred Dalton Thompson (District Attorney Arthur Branch) and Leslie Hendrix (Dr. Elizabeth Rodgers) are the only actors to play the same character on all four Law & Order series (Law & Order, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Law & Order: Trial by Jury).
  • Two years prior to being hired for the show as ADA Casey Novak, Diane Neal played a woman on the show who is investigated by the detectives for raping a male stripper in the episode "Ridicule".
  • Tamara Tunie also appeared as an attorney on the original series before being cast as Dr. Warner.
  • George Huang's FBI badge number is 2317616, as told in the episode "Charisma." This is the same badge number as Agent Dana Scully of The X-Files.
  • Mariska Hargitay's (Detective Olivia Benson) real-life father, Mickey Hargitay, appears in the episode "Control". He plays a man on an escalator, who is seen speaking to her character.
  • Many actors previously starred on the HBO show Oz including Dean Winters and B.D. Wong. Chris Meloni (Detective Stabler) played a sadistic rapist and murderer on Oz, and now hunts them on SVU.
  • SVU has surpassed, in both ratings and popularity, the original Law & Order television program. This is a rare occurrence in the television industry.
  • Stephanie March reprised her role as Alexandra Cabot as a Bureau Chief in Dick Wolf's short-lived drama Conviction (2006), despite her character's entry into the Witness Protection Program on SVU.
  • It is believed that the characters of Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler were named from creator Dick Wolf's three real life children: Olivia, Elliot and Sarina (the latter namesake of Olivia Benson's mother, seen in the series pilot, as well as Law & Order ADA Serena Southerlyn).
  • Title theme for the UK terrestrial channel five version: "I'm Not Driving Anymore", the instrumental version from Rob Dougan's Furious Angels (Disc 2) [1]
  • Mariska Hargitay keeps a photo of her mother, Jayne Mansfield, on her desk on the set.
  • The precinct is sometimes referred to as "Manhattan SVU". This is not an error, as each borough (Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island) has its own SVU.
  • A parody of SVU called "Law and Order: Special Letters Unit" aired on the first episode of the 37th Season of Sesame Street. It consisted of four puppets made to look like Benson, Munch, Stabler, and Cragen. The plot involved each of the detectives searching for a missing letter "M". Throughout the segment, Law & Order's distinctive "Chung-Chung" sound is parodied. [2] In a NBC.com blog, Dick Wolf stated that he appoved the parody, and hopes that Sesame Street continues the segment using the rest of the letters in the alphabet. [3]
  • Mariska Hargitay is the first cast member from any member of the Law & Order franchise to win an Emmy (as well as a Golden Globe) for her role on the show.
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