Law & Order: Special Victims Unit turns 20 this year, an accomplishment marked by bragging rights—it’s the fourth-longest running scripted primetime series in the U.S.—and two decades of heinous crimes, all investigated by an elite squad played chiefly by Mariska Hargitay, Christopher Meloni, Ice-T, and Richard Belzer. As Olivia Benson, Hargitay has been holding down the show since its September 20, 1999 premiere, dealing with family tragedies and some serious occupational hazards while also moving up the ranks to lieutenant. If we were looking at individual detectives, there’d be no doubt about who would top the list of dedicated investigators. But teamwork is what the Special Victims Unit is built on, which is why The A.V. Club has sorted through all the files and letters of commendation—while skipping the pairings occasionally born of necessity, like Tutuola and Benson—to rank the series’ odd couples and dream duos.
Rollins (Kelli Giddish) and Carisi (Peter Scanavino) are basically Benson and Stabler 2.0, only with fewer boundaries, which is precisely why they find themselves at the bottom of this list. The sensitive nature of their work tends to gradually reveal more about the characters’ personal lives, but Rollins and Carisi, now partners for three years, flash their baggage along with their badges. Rollins wasn’t always written that way—early on, she kept her gambling addiction and asshole family to herself. But ever since having her first child, the Atlanta native can’t keep her personal life out of the squad room. Neither can her partner, who takes every opportunity to talk about law school (he’s in night school, you know, counselor), his big family, and Rollins’ growing one. The same could be said for Olivia (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliot (Christopher Meloni), but that was after nearly a decade of pushing boyfriends and family to the periphery in service of their jobs. Rollins and Carisi don’t just cover for each other, they run personal errands together during their shared shift (he knows what kind of nipple cream she needs, because of aforementioned big family). They’re great friends—and possibly more, which seems to be an occupational hazard with Rollins—but not ideal partners.
Mariska Hargitay took time off from the show during season eight, which led to the introduction of Danielle “Dani” Beck, who, with all due respect to Connie Nielsen, was little more than wish fulfillment for Stabler and the SVU writers. Beck’s background was in warrants, which left her ill prepared for the delicate work of questioning victims. She was also almost as hotheaded as Stabler, already a bad sign, yet they were still partnered for a series of episodes that just happened to coincide with his trial separation. Two loose cannons could never work long-term, not even in SVU, which practically rewards overzealousness. Beck wasn’t around for long, but she gave into all of the squad’s worst impulses—kissing her partner, bringing home a troubled child, etc. By the time she asked Elliot to ask her to stay, her transfer had already been written (as had Benson’s return).
Along with Benson, Tutuola (Ice-T) is one of the longest-serving members of the SVU. Like Benson, he’s also had a string of partners who fail to hold up to the original (in Fin’s case, Det. John Munch). And Chester Lake (Adam Beach), the Brooklyn detective and closest thing to a Gary Stu SVU ever had, was the worst received of them all. Beach’s performance in Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee impressed executive producer Dick Wolf enough to make room for Lake at the precinct, but the character turned out to be all idiosyncrasies and no personality. He was an insomniac who could home in on what part of the city a victim was being held by the sound of a train whistle in the background, but had little chemistry with his partner. Tutuola’s incredulity, usually reserved for finding out about the internet and Munch’s conspiracy theories, didn’t work nearly as well in response to Lake dropping New York trivia left and right. Lake was spared an Alexandra Borgia-style departure, but he was hardly missed by viewers.
The SVU writers really seem to enjoy partnering the squad’s most dedicated—and single—detective, Olivia Benson, with a proud family-man type who frequently fails said family. Along with Rollins, Nick Amaro (Danny Pino) was introduced in season 13 to fill the Elliot Stabler-sized void, and even he shared some of his predecessors’ worst traits. Despite that, Benson and Amaro didn’t hit it off right away—the SVU vet was clearly resentful of having to break in not one, but two new additions. Eventually, Amaro got a handle on the job but lost his grip on his personal life, having multiple meltdowns at the station. Once again, Benson had to help keep that mess in check, having only learned so much from dealing with Stabler. We get that the detectives’ line of work breeds familiarity, but once Stabler left, every new SVU member showed up unloading their baggage onto Benson, hastening the character’s ascent to Job-like status. Although it was rough going, we’re relieved to see Olivia as a lieutenant now, because it means she can finally set some boundaries with all these emotional vampires.
Before Munch (John Belzer) and Fin, there was Munch and Cassidy (Dean Winters), and before that, there was Munch and Jeffries (Michelle Hurd). Well, given that Munch first appeared on Homicide: Life On The Street, Det. Stanley Bolander (Ned Beatty) precedes them all, but we digress. Cassidy and Jeffries were both solid partners for Munch, though they weren’t around long enough to make a lasting impression. Winters, who joined SVU during his Oz tenure, went against type to play the most wide-eyed of the detectives, which was a nice counterpoint to Munch’s cynicism. But the job quickly took its toll on Cassidy, who was replaced in season one by Jeffries, the only black woman who’s ever served in SVU. Jeffries’ inability to keep her personal and work lives separate became an increasingly common trait on the show, though in her case—she had sex with someone who was once a suspect in a rape case—it was extreme enough to lead to her removal from the squad. But before that, Jeffries proved herself smart, tough, and funny enough to keep up with Munch. If she’d shown up later in the show’s run (and been named Rollins), she probably would’ve just gotten a week’s paid leave.
It’s strange that it took so long to partner two female detectives on the show, given how well Olivia worked with assistant district attorneys (who, until Rafael Barba, were all women) and medical examiner Melinda Warner (Tamara Tunie). But, early arrogance aside, Benson and Rollins made a solid team. Benson might not have wanted to train two new detectives after losing her best friend and partner, but Rollins definitely benefited from the tutelage. In her first season, Rollins was brash and brusque, which would seem to make her a bad fit for Benson, who is the embodiment of empathy. Rollins honed her investigative skills and bedside manner under Benson’s supervision, but she also brought some much-needed new blood to the squad room, making her a fine (if not great) partner for everyone’s favorite detective.
As a stand-alone character, Rollins is a mess—she lays all of her personal drama out in the squad room, the break room, Benson’s apartment, her apartment, etc. But that’s because she’s often written as everyone else’s id, making mistakes that would have shocked viewers early on in a two-parter, but are now all rolled into episodes with titles like “Forgiving Rollins.” Still, her resolve is undeniable, and so is her chemistry with Tutuola. Fin quickly took to acting as her mentor, dishing out tough love along with poignant concern. Like Carisi, he’s had to cover for Rollins during one of her missteps, but he’s done it without bringing up nipple cream for the new mom. But he’s also pushed Rollins to be a better and more sympathetic investigator. And in return, Rollins has reinvigorated Fin’s passion for his work (he’s had a foot out the door on more than one occasion). At its best, their dynamic recalls Benson and Stabler before they lost all ability to be objective with each other.
Put down the pitchforks and torches—we agree that Benson and Stabler are easily the most iconic duo from SVU. Countless fan fiction sites and an entire USA Network marathon have been devoted to blurring the lines between these two partners, who worked alongside each other on and off for a decade. Early on, their vastly different approaches were much more complementary: Benson urged caution whenever she saw Stabler about to lose it, and he occasionally had to reel her back in on the job, too. They could practically read each other’s minds, a bond that helped make them the most effective detectives on the squad. Over time, that closeness became co-dependence, which the show explored by separating the partners, only to bring them back together because you can’t have one without the other. But there was always something toxic about the characters’ overreliance on each other, which stemmed from the writers’ overreliance on this narrative angle. For all the titillating times Olivia and Elliot went undercover as a married couple, there were twice as many blowups over what little uncommon ground they did have. Meloni’s exit is still felt today, but at least Stabler’s departure left room for Benson to have something more than half a life.
Although there’s considerably less fan fiction written about John Munch and Fin Tutuola, their dynamic remains the real standard bearer for the show. Like Benson in the post-Stabler era, Munch was reeling from the loss of a partner when he first teamed up with Fin. But the former Army Ranger and narcotics detective didn’t let that stop him from making SVU his home, and Munch his partner and friend. They shared a healthy sense of skepticism, though it never blossomed into a near-total distrust of the world for Fin the way it did for conspiracy hound Munch. Their back-and-forth regularly made for some of the funniest, non-gibbon-related moments in SVU history, but their relationship went beyond banter. Munch and Fin frequently challenged each other’s beliefs, which made them better detectives and partners. Their ability to maintain some professional distance is precisely why they were always able to patch things up—usually with more quips—after a disagreement. Hargitay and Meloni were the de facto leads of SVU, but Belzer and Ice-T always acquitted themselves nicely when the series focused on them. Benson and Stabler’s personal drama may have been more of a piece with SVU, but Munch and Fin’s unrivaled chemistry made the show bearable in the long run.