Kelli Giddish, Peter Scanavino
Photo: Barbara Nitke (NBC)

The twentieth season of Law & Order: SVU is a big one, tying Gunsmoke and the original Law & Order to become the longest-running scripted U.S. primetime television series (not counting animated ones). And with this season, I imagine, there must be an added pressure in the writers room. After all, SVU has been doing #MeToo episodes before it was a hashtag.

The series begins its landmark season with a two-part premiere: “Man Up” and “Man Down.” The episodes fall into a mid-ground between “vintage” SVU and its later, worse years. It has a lot on its mind, rushing through updates on the detectives’ personal lives while trying to weave together sexual assault and toxic masculinity and school shootings.

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It’s what we’ve come to expect from SVU: It’s the only Law & Order franchise left (at least until Hate Crimes premieres), meaning it works triple-duty trying to depict as many “ripped from the headlines” stories as it can, even when they don’t necessarily fit into the particular unit. Here, at least, it makes sense.

“Man Up” introduces 15-year-old Sam Conway as he reluctantly hunts rabbits with his brother Brian and father John (played by Dylan Walsh), unable to bring himself to shoot. Later, a gym teacher reports blood on Sam’s shorts, an investigation is opened, a hospital finds injuries from “assault or rough sex,” and SVU speeds off into its whole SVU thing. There are twists and red herrings and multiple suspects, ranging from a random bar patron to Sam’s brother. Eventually (and this is barely halfway through the first part), Sam’s mother Molly confesses to the detective that it was, indeed, John who raped their son.

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While all of this is happening, SVU also struggles to catch us up on on some of the main characters’ lives. Rollins is pregnant again but hesitant to tell anyone. ADA Stone is still reeling from the death of his sister and coping by boozing too hard and having threesomes. Meanwhile, Benson’s big storyline is that she’s been getting winded while chasing down suspects and accidentally hurts an innocent cyclist while running after a perp. Compared to the usual story arcs that Benson gets—especially during the last few seasons—this one is pretty quiet and low-key, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it’ll blow up into something ridiculous soon.

As expected, the main investigation into Sam’s sexual assault snowballs through multiple stories and a court hearing that doesn’t go well. What often works the best in SVU are the more introspective and smaller moments, like when Benson talks to Molly afterward. Their conversation shows the internal struggle Molly has: She wants to protect her son, but isn’t sure how to do so because the alternative to letting John stay is putting them all through messy fights and court hearings. On the surface, it should seem like a no-brainer to kick John out but SVU knows that, on a personal level, it’s always easier said than done. But then, as SVU is wont to do, it goes even bigger by introducing a second devastating storyline: a mass shooting.

Sam takes his father’s rifle and heads back to school. The episode makes it clear exactly what’s going to happen but, fortunately, spares us the actual visuals. It’s a rare display of restraint from a show that has gotten increasingly more graphic and torturous under Warren Leight. Rather, we just get the aftermath as Benson & co. arrive on scene. The leap from point A to point B doesn’t feel organic but just feels like SVU needed some way to throw in a school shooting plot just because it felt it had to. It’s equally odd when the episode segues into overt notions of toxic masculinity—even though it was clearly on display from the beginning, it still feels sudden.

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Mariska Hargitay, Kelli Giddish
Photo: Barbara Nitke (NBC)

To be fair to the show, I do commend its desire to openly talk about the effects of, as one character puts it, growing up “with a traditional view of masculinity taken to the extreme.” But it doesn’t feel totally right in the context of the original crime; it would make more sense in an episode dedicated to the toxicity of “incels” and, especially, the ways in which internet communities have fostered and promoted that toxicity. But here, it’s almost tacked on. By the end of the episode, when they decide to put John on trial for his role in making Sam feel like he had to use a gun in order to be a “man,” (and connecting this to the earlier hunting scene) it doesn’t quite land.

It’s almost weird to review an episode of Law & Order: SVU within the parameters of the wider television landscape; I’ve always viewed episodes instead within the parameters its created for itself. In that case, it’s not a bad episode but strictly average: rushed, clumsy, crowded. One thing that frequently plagues SVU is its habit of packing episodes to the brim without allowing room to fully explore the ideas they’re introducing.

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But the main reason I wanted to drop in on the premiere wasn’t episode-specific but because I keep returning to SVU’s place in 2018. It’s always been a commendable show—even when it’s at its worse—because there were so few programs willing to engage and interrogate rape culture. This number has increased in recent years (though too often we’re still seeing rape used as a throwaway plot device) which perhaps make SVU stand out a little less. Yet, there is still a vague comfort to the show which still frequently relies on tidy endings where justice is actually served. It’s the least believable aspect of the show but it’s also part of why it’s remained so immensely watchable. It’s a fantasy, a way to briefly live in a fair world that believes victims and rushes to prosecute rapists

Law & Order: SVU has certainly been showing some wear and tear lately but it’s no accident that it’s successfully remained on the air for so long. It’s both a notable and unsurprising feat—and, honestly, pretty depressing to think that part of this longevity is due to the fact that SVU will never run out of storylines.


Stray observations

  • There is always at least one line per episode that makes me shriek and this time it’s “my wife’s yoga pants don’t stretch this much.”
  • The detail of Rollins frequently eating due to her pregnancy was so cliche but I didn’t mind it.
  • Noah shoving Benson and refusing to say “I love you” back didn’t work for me, but honestly nothing with Noah ever works for me.
  • If this were maybe ... three separate episodes tackling the three main issues, they’d probably each get a B-! But combined, well. 

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