TV procedural dramas can be difficult to judge. They serve a distinct purpose- they exist as something for people to put on at the end of a busy day and be entertained, without having to think too much. If you want mind-shattering intensity, you watch Breaking Bad repeats; if you just want to unwind, you watch Criminal Minds.
Perhaps the most crucial element of any episode of a procedural drama is the “twist”, the big shift or turn in the narrative that gets the audience into it and, more importantly, keeps them coming back for more twists. In a TV landscape overcrowded with shows as it is, these shows must compete with each other to come up with bigger, better twists. Sometimes, however, this can result in taking things to an irrational extreme.
One of the biggest culprits in this department, now entering its seventeenth year on NBC, is Dick Wolf’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Notable for being the spinoff of its (now only slightly) longer-running mothership series as well as a rare example of a show surviving for a few years in a Friday night time-slot, SVU works off of an already intense and morbidly fascinating subject matter: the pursuit and subsequent bringing-to-justice of sexual predators. One would think no artificial heightening of the stakes would be necessary, but nonetheless there are certainly plenty of such examples. Here are a few quick favorites of mine:
“Zebras” – J/K about the new lab tech, he’s a psycho
SVU seems to do its best to constantly preach the message that if there is something “off” about a person, they are almost certainly up to something bad. Such was the case of lab technician Dale Stuckey, a minor character introduced in season 10. Dale was very “off”, and extremely annoying both in- and out-of-universe. As awkwardly as Dale was shoehorned into the action, it stood as a dull surprise when he ended up being a crazed murderer. What was shocking, however, was the unceremonious exit of long-time lab tech Ryan O’Halloran (Mike Doyle), who fell victim to Stuckey and was essentially forgotten about by the start of the next season.
“Screwed” – Ludacris would make a fantastic attorney
Season finales are tricky. You want to give the audience something wild, something that makes them want to come back the next season, something that leaves them blown away when the episode fades to black. SVU decided to just bring back Ludacris and shake things up in a way that we all knew was never going to be lasting. The episode, based around a court case involving Ludacris’ character that manages to ensnare the entire squad (even Munch kind of did something) in its net, involves several twists and turns mostly just for the sake of trying to keep us interested. Fin’s family is super messed up and maybe a bit incestual, but did anyone think he had a happy family prior to this episode? Stabler gets into it with Fin for checking his phone records to see if he tipped off his nephew, something that Stabler had no real reason to do and isn’t even able to justify in-universe. Ludacris, Esq. drags up all sorts of dirt such as Kathleen Stabler’s DUI and Benson’s money transfer to her brother that randomly exists (more on that shortly), but the only thing that comes of it is poor Kathleen gets sent to jail. Stabler’s wife is pregnant. Who cares?
“Philadelphia” / “Florida” – Hey, Benson has a brother now!
Season eight was a weird one for SVU. Not only was the finale a bit excessive as covered above, it also featured an altered structure due to Mariska Hargitay’s pregnancy. Some episodes didn’t feature Hargitay’s Olivia Benson at all, while others featured Benson almost exclusively as she had been given her own
Emmy baitstory arc involving going undercover with an environmental terrorism group (I’m sensing the need for a part 2 for this post). Once she came back from that, it seemed like all was well in the SVUniverse again… until Simon shows up. You see, it turns out Benson has a half-brother via her rapist dad that she has just now been reacquainted with, and he’s on the run from the law (for alleged rape, no less). Sounds like a great premise for a soap opera arc, but it may be a bit much for SVU. Simon was portrayed by Michael Weston, this episode having occurred during a strange moment in time in 2007-2008 when television casting agents seemed to have a brief obsession with Weston (see also: House, Scrubs, Psych). Over the course of these two episodes, Benson fights ruthlessly to defend the brother she never knew from an allegation of a crime she does not know for sure he didn’t commit; all this from a detective infamous for her “guilty until proven innocent” attitude toward… well, just about anyone else. In the end, they go with a classic SVU twist to wrap things up: that mean ol’ captain from Philly was just framing Simon because she was upset about her own family’s sexual abuse history. Simon goes on to appear once or twice again down the line as a reminder of this absurd little detour.
So there you have it, there are three solid examples of SVU delving a bit too far into the deep end. Don’t get me wrong, the show does a great thing by bringing about awareness to urgent, troubling issues within society. But that doesn’t mean we can’t still laugh when it goes a little overboard.