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Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (also known as Law & Order: SVU, SVU: Special Victims Unit or simply SVU) is an American police procedural TV series about the Special Victims Unit in a fictional version of the 16th Precinct of the New York City Police Department. The show debuted on September 20, 1999 as a spin-off of the crime drama Law & Order and follows the same opening style of its parent. SVU is currently the highest-rated series of the Law & Order franchise, and is one of NBC's top rated shows. The franchise also includes four other series dramas: the original Law & Order, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Trial By Jury and Law & Order: UK.


Technical information

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has been shot on film in the 16:9 aspect ratio since at least 2003 (the year first-run episodes also began airing in HDTV). Since 2006, all new episodes of the multiple Law & Order series have aired in 16:9. Recently USA Network began airing reruns going all the way back to "Payback" in wide-screen (16:9) format.

Title sequence

As with the original Law and Order series, the opening title card features a voiceover by Steven Zirnkilton:

SVU uses a re-mixed version of the theme music from its parent show Law & Order.

Since the second season on, the franchise convention of the characters walking toward the camera at the end of the opening sequence was replaced by the cast gathered in front of a desk. This change was dictated by the large credited cast (nine members as of 2007).

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 two) has only changed once since they first appeared on the show. The photo for Mariska Hargitay has changed six times (Season one has one photo, seasons 2-4 and the first four episodes of season 5 have another, the rest of season 5 has a third, seasons 6-8 have a fourth, season 9 has a new picture, and season 11). Christopher Meloni, Richard Belzer and B.D. Wong had new photos starting with the fifth episode of season five (coinciding with the debut of Diane Neal as Casey Novak). Neal had one photo for season five, a second for seasons six and seven, and a new photo for season eight and a new one for season nine. Tamara Tunie, who first appeared in the opening credits in season seven, has a new photo for season eight and yet another for season nine. The photos for each cast member were updated for season 9 to coincide with the addition of Adam Beach to the cast.

The current order of introduction in the opening credits is Meloni, Hargitay, Belzer, Ice-T, March, Wong, Tunie, and Florek. Meloni, Hargitay, and Belzer have always been the first three, with Florek last, much as the district attorney has always been last on the original series.

Prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks, the show's opening sequence featured two separate shots of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centermarker. After September 11, a new shot of the same area of lower Manhattan was used and still is the current one.

Broadcast history

The show originally aired on Monday nights at 9:00 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 4 on May 16, 2003. SVU was placed in its current time slot for the Season 5 premiere on September 23, 2003 Tuesday nights at 10:00 p.m. ET and occasionally runs previous shows on Saturday nights at 10:00 p.m. ET. The USA Network also runs previous episodes on weekday afternoons, generally in a block from 3 to 5 p.m. ET.

The series vacated its Tuesday 10:00 p.m. ET slot in fall 2009 when NBC began a primetime weeknight Jay Leno series. Law and Order: Special Victims Unit currently airs on Wednesday nights at 9:00 p.m. ET, while CTV will still air SVU on Tuesdays at 10:00 in Canada. The eleventh season premiered its new time slot on September 23, 2009.



Plot inspirations

Like the other member shows of the Law and Order franchise, many Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episodes are clear references to high-profile real-life cases (or notable fictional works), and are based on thinly veiled dramatizations of these actual events, though the particulars and outcome may end up to be quite different. In addition to referencing real-life cases, episodes reference real-life popular culture and political issues, often through fictitious entities with real world counterparts such as a faux Facebook or MySpace.

Character drama

The show is more character-driven than most police procedurals (such as the rest of the Law & Order franchise), with a less-than-complete focus on the main case. For example, detectives Elliot Stabler (Meloni) and Olivia Benson (Hargitay) 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 dealt with anger issues that drove away his wife and children. Benson was conceived when her mother was raped and had to put up with much of her subsequent alcoholism.

In the 2005 and 2006 seasons, more attention is paid to Benson and Stabler's relationship. This breaks form with the rest of the other Dick Wolf franchises. Benson and Stabler were seen struggling with their partnership. The emotional attachment between them became almost volatile at the end of the 2006 season, when Benson asked for a new partner. Concerning the Benson and Stabler relationship, Hargitay stated in an interview: "It's very complicated. Sometimes it's very much like brother and sister, and I think the reason that they're so close is that they share a passion for their jobs and for the people. They have a mutual respect for one another. I think that the average lifespan of an SVU detective is four years because of the difficulty and stress involved. They've been doing it for longer than that, so they feel like they're in their own world almost. There's also sexual chemistry between them, it's so loaded and layered. People ask me if they'll ever get together — and people want that, and sometimes I think even Olivia wants that — but I don't think that will ever happen."

Cast and characters

The characters of Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler were named for creator Dick Wolf's children. Wolf's third child, daughter Sarina, had a character named for her in the original Law & Order (A.D.A. Serena Southerlyn, played by Elisabeth Röhm from 2001-05). Also, in Special Victims Unit, Benson's mother was named Serena. In the original Law & Order, Detective Ray Curtis's daughter was also named Olivia.

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

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 10 seasons.

The show's first A.D.A. was Abbie Carmichael played by Angie Harmon. While plans had originally called for Harmon to serve as a recurring guest star, she appeared in only six episodes during the show's first season.

Munch's partner was Detective Brian Cassidy, played by Dean Winters, during the show's first season. Cassidy was just assigned to the unit as the show began; he transferred to Narcotics partway through the first season because he was having trouble dealing with some of the disturbing cases the division dealt with regularly, and possibly also because his relationship with Benson ended.

Michelle Hurd played Detective Monique Jeffries. Jeffries was originally a minor character, but when Dean Winters left the show mid-season, 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 was written out of the show as part of a police review of the unit.

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

In season two, the show added Stephanie March, whose character, Alexandra Cabot, served as a permanent supporting A.D.A. for the show. In season five, Cabot was shot and presumed dead, but was actually placed in the Witness Protection Program for her safety. Stephanie March reprised her role in the sixth season episode "Ghost", when her character comes out of Witness Protection and testifies against the man who shot her. On January 9, 2009, it was announced that Stephanie March would return for a six episode arc in the tenth season, beginning with the episode "Lead" set to air on March 10, 2009. On June 12, 2009 it was announced the she would reprise her role for a part of the eleventh season, while producers search for a more permanent actress for SVU's ADA. On June 29, 2009, it was reported that she would return for the fifth episode and guest star for a total of ten episodes.

Casey Novak, portrayed by Diane Neal, fills Cabot's vacancy as the new SVU A.D.A. Neal's final episode was the ninth season finale "Cold," after which she gets disbarred for withholding evidence from the defense during a trial, and then lying to Judge Petrofsky and Judge Donnelly about what she did after getting caught.

B.D. Wong began appearing as George Huang, a forensic psychiatrist on loan from the FBImarker, 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.

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

Mike Doyle entered in 2003 as Ryan O'Halloran, a CSU agent who worked frequently with the unit. He appeared in 50 episodes until his death in the Season 10 finale.

In 2006, Connie Nielsen was cast as Detective Dani Beck, a warrants detective who comes from a Specialized unit, to fill in for Benson (Hargitay was on maternity leave) who was undercover for the FBI at the time. Beck's husband, a police officer, was murdered in 2002, and she and Stabler flirted with the possibility of a romantic involvement. In the November 21, 2006 episode, she admits to him she feels unable to deal with the nature of the crimes handled by SVU, but implies she would be willing to stay if Stabler asked her. When he tells her she needs to remain for herself, not him, she tells him goodbye and exits the series.

It was announced that Adam Beach would be joining SVU full-time starting in season nine with the role of Chester Lake, a character who first appeared in a guest-starring role as a Brooklyn SVU detective. In the January 16, 2007 episode, he helped Tutuola and his son stop a serial rapist, then returned in the eighth season finale as a transfer to Manhattan SVU. On April 18, 2008, it was reported by the Hollywood Reporter that Adam Beach was leaving his role after his one-season contract had officially expired. Detective Lake is arrested for murder of a rapist in the ninth season finale (involved in the same case in which A.D.A. Casey Novak gets suspended). Both Beach and Neal were written out of the show after this episode, which aired May 13, 2008.

In June 2008 it was announced that Michaela McManus would join the cast as new A.D.A. Kim Greylek, but she appeared in only fourteen episodes of season ten and was abruptly replaced by Stephanie March, who returned with the credit "Special Guest Star" (Melinda McGraw also filled the ADA role for one episode, playing attorney Samantha Copeland). On April 18, 2009, it was confirmed that McManus had departed the cast permanently.

On June 29, 2009 it was reported that Christine Lahti would sign on for four episodes of the eleventh season, starting with the season premiere as SVU's temporary A.D.A. Sonya Paxton and then return for the show's eight episode, where she clashes with Alex Cabot.

The eleventh season premiered on Wednesday, September 23, 2009 at 9pm/8c (CTV retains SVU in its Tuesday timeslot). Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay both signed on for the eleventh season.

Main characters

Season Senior Detective Junior Detective Sergeant Senior Detective Junior Detective Junior Detective Captain Psychiatrist Medical Examiner Assistant District Attorney
1 Elliot Stabler

(Christopher Meloni)
Olivia Benson

(Mariska Hargitay)
Vacant John Munch

(Richard Belzer)
Brian Cassidy

(Dean Winters)*
Monique Jeffries

(Michelle Hurd)
Don Cragen

(Dann Florek)
Dr. Emil Skoda

(J.K. Simmons)*
Dr. Elizabeth Rodgers

(Leslie Hendrix)*
2 Odafin Tutuola

Dr. Melinda Warner

(Tamara Tunie)
Alexandra Cabot

(Stephanie March)
Dr. George Huang

(B.D. Wong)
5 Casey Novak

(Diane Neal)
8 Dani Beck

(Connie Nielsen)*
9 John Munch

(Richard Belzer)
Odafin Tutuola

Chester Lake

(Adam Beach)
10 Vacant Kim Greylek

(Michaela McManus)
Alexandra Cabot

(Stephanie March)*
11 Sonya Paxton

(Christine Lahti)*
Alexandra Cabot

(Stephanie March)**

* Denotes a character who hasn't appeared in opening credits, yet commonly appeared on the show

** Denotes a character who only appeared in the opening credits, when in that episode.


U.S. television ratings

SVU premiered on a Monday in 1999. After the November 29 episode, the show was sent to Friday nights where it found its audience and following its first season became a top 20 show. Beginning with the fifth season, the show was aired on Tuesdays to compete with CBS' Judging Amy and ABC's NYPD Blue.In recent years, SVU has consistently outperformed Law & Order in the Nielsen ratings for first run episodes. Despite this, SVU has never eclipsed the peak popularity of Law & Order.

Seasonal rankings (based on average total viewers per episode) of Law & Order: SVU on NBC.

Note: Each U.S. network television season starts in late September and ends in late May (with the exception of the 10th season), which coincides with the completion of May sweeps.

Season Timeslot Season premiere Season finale TV season Ranking Viewers

(in millions)
1st Monday 9:00 p.m.

Friday 10:00 p.m.
September 20, 1999 May 19, 2000 1999-2000 #40 12.2
2nd Friday 10:00 p.m. October 20, 2000 May 11, 2001 2000-2001 TBA TBA
3rd September 28, 2001 May 17, 2002 2001-2002 #14 15.2
4th September 27, 2002 May 16, 2003 2002-2003 #16 14.8
5th Tuesday 10:00 p.m. September 23, 2003 May 18, 2004 2003-2004 #21 12.7
6th September 21, 2004 May 24, 2005 2004-2005 #23 13.5
7th September 20, 2005 May 16, 2006 2005-2006 #23 13.8
8th September 19, 2006 May 22, 2007 2006-2007 #30 11.9
9th September 25, 2007 May 13, 2008 2007-2008 #30 11.3
10th September 23, 2008 June 2, 2009 2008-2009 #35 10.3
11th Wednesday 9:00pm September 23, 2009 May 2010 2009-2010 TBA 8.48 (to date)

Syndication ratings

In its second season in weekend syndication, "SVU" is improving time periods across the country, averaging more than 4.7 million viewers per week and it's the #1 off-network weekly drama in many key demos, according to season-to-date Nielsen Media Research GAA ratings data. The series is #1 among all off-net weekend dramas in Women 18-49, Adults 18-49 and Adults 25-54 (tied with CSI: NY). For the week of December 1, 2008, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit scored its season-high ratings in syndication, averaging a 3.9 HH rating and 5.3 million viewers.

Awards and honors

Year Group Award Result Recipient(s)
2001 Edgar Award Best Episode in a Television Series - Teleplay Won Michael R. Perry

for "Limitations"
2002 NAACP Image Award Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series Won Ice-T
Emmy Award Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series Nominated Martha Plimpton
2003 Edgar Award Best Episode in a Television Series - Teleplay Won Dawn DeNoon and Lisa Marie Petersen

for "Waste"
2003 Satellite Award Best Television Series - Drama Nominated Regular Cast
2004 Emmy Award Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series Nominated Mariska Hargitay
NAACP Image Award Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series Nominated Ice-T
Screen Actors Guild Best Female Actor in a Drama Series Nominated Mariska Hargitay
2005 Emmy Award Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series Nominated Mariska Hargitay
Golden Globe Award Best Actress in a Television Drama Series Won Mariska Hargitay
2006 Emmy Award Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series Won Mariska Hargitay 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.
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series Nominated Christopher Meloni
NAACP Image Award Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series Nominated Ice-T
Screen Actors Guild Best Female Actor in a Drama Series Nominated Mariska Hargitay
2007 Screen Actors Guild Best Female Actor in a Drama Series Nominated Mariska Hargitay
People's Choice Award Favorite Scene Stealer in a Drama Series Nominated Richard Belzer
Emmy Award Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series Nominated Mariska Hargitay
Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series Nominated Marcia Gay Harden
Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series Won Leslie Caron
2008 Emmy Award Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series Nominated Mariska Hargitay
Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series Nominated Robin Williams
Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series Won Cynthia Nixon
People's Choice Award Favorite Female TV Star Nominated Mariska Hargitay
Golden Globe Award Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series Nominated Mariska Hargitay
2009 Emmy Award Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series Nominated Mariska Hargitay
Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series Won Ellen Burstyn
Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series Nominated Brenda Blethyn
Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series Nominated Carol Burnett
Screen Actors Guild Best Female Actor in a Drama Series Nominated Mariska Hargitay
PRISM Awards Drama Series-Mental Health Won
Peoples Choice Awards Favorite Scene Stealing Guest Star Won Robin Williams
Image Awards Outstanding Directing in a Drama Series Nominated Jonathan Greene for "Ripped"
Gracie Allen Awards Outstanding Female Lead in a Drama Series Won Mariska Hargitay

DVD releases

Universal Studios Home Entertainment has released Law & Order: Special Victims Unit on DVD in Regions 1, 2 & 4. Seasons 1-8 have been released in Regions 1, 2 and 4.

Title Ep# Release dates
Region 1 Region 2 Region 4
The Complete 1st Season 22 October 21, 2003 February 28, 2005 January 20, 2005
The Complete 2nd Season 21 September 27, 2005 November 21, 2005 March 6, 2006
The Complete 3rd Season 23 January 30, 2007 July 23, 2007 August 1, 2007
The Complete 4th Season 25 December 4, 2007 September 10, 2007 November 21, 2007
The Complete 5th Season 25 September 14, 2004 June 16, 2008 July 2, 2008
The Complete 6th Season 23 April 1, 2008 September 22, 2008 December 3, 2008
The Complete 7th Season 22 July 29, 2008 February 16, 2009 March 4, 2009
The Complete 8th Season 22 February 17, 2009 April 13, 2009 June 3, 2009
The Complete 9th Season 19 May 26, 2009 August 31, 2009 September 30, 2009
The Complete 10th Season 22 September 22, 2009 December 28, 2009 N/A
The Complete 11th Season 24 N/A N/A N/A

Online releases

Seasons 1 and 5-10 are available for purchase on the Amazon Unbox Video System and on Applemarker iTunes in both HD and standard formats in the United States.

Seasons 1-10 are also available on Netflix's Instant Viewing feature. Seasons 1-10 are available for rent.


Law & Order crossed over three times with other NBC shows:

  • "Entitled – Part I" (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit 1x15), continued in "Entitled – Part II" (Law & Order 10x14)
  • "Night" (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit 6x20), continued in "Day" (Law & Order: Trial by Jury 1x11)
  • "Design" (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit 7x2), continued in "Flaw" (Law & Order 16x2)

Russian adaptation

Twelve episodes (in a random order, taken from the first three seasons of the show) were remade for Russian television to much success, which resulted in a full season order for fall of 2007.



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