Since the sex-crimes wing of Dick Wolf’s Heartbreak Hotel is the only Law & Order still doing a brisk business, and thus the only one of the triptych already renewed for another year by NBC, it may be worth wondering why Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Stabler (Christopher Meloni) are still gladly received in our homes. After all, Jack McCoy seems to have worn out his welcome, and Robert Goren, the Hunchback of Nostradamus, gives most of us what Don DeLillo in Great Jones Street called “the neon creepies.” I’d like to think that their first names—“Olivia” Benson and “Elliot” Stabler—have something to do with this. “Olivia” and “Elliot” sound less like tough cops than febrile poets or drawing-room-comedy characters. It’s as if these softer, kinder sounds were secret selves and dream identities.
But probably not. Because, mostly, Benson and Stabler are out of their minds with grief and rage. She is always working out the fraught algebra of her mother’s rape. He spends so much time imagining all the terrible things that might happen to his daughter that we begin to suspect him of repressing personal kinkies. Even when they work on a low-key case of teenage alcoholic drinking and Website party circuits, as in the recent episode called “Responsible,” they invest so much raw emotion—they take everything, including the vagaries of a judge, so personally—that we worry about their health.
The stakes are higher this Tuesday night, May 1, when Benson discovers that neither her half-brother (Michael Weston), an accused rapist, nor his principal accuser, a New Jersey police captain (Kim Delaney), are who they seem to be, reopening the whole question of Olivia’s paternity. And then the following Tuesday, May 8, a family massacre will freak out Stabler, who is estranged from his own wife and kids and who, as usual, bullies a suspect to encourage a confession.
I am sorry to say that John Munch (Richard Belzer) and Odafin “Fin” Tutuola (Ice-T) have no part to play in either of these hours, although it’s easy enough to imagine what they’d do and say if called upon, since both of them are so frozen into temperamental tics—the Ramsey Clark conspiracy rant, Miles Davis mercury-cooled—that they might as well be Popsicle shticks. I’m also sorry to say that Dr. George Huang (B. D. Wong) does have a part, opening his mouth to explain to Stabler that “family annihilators are the ultimate narcissists.” Thanks, Doc. It’s always been hard to decide whether Wong’s Huang is more insulting to Asians or to psychiatrists. And some other time we will ask ourselves just why so many television medical examiners, like Tamara Tunie on L&O: SVU and Khandi Alexander on CSI: Miami, happen to be gorgeous black women. Angels of death? The morgue as Bat Cave?
Still, we may have wearied of the Law & Order prototype (in which, week after ripped-from-the-headlines week, in spite of Sam Waterston’s hangdog exasperation, justice is denied by pettifogging, hairsplitting, bleeding-heart judges), and of its Criminal Intent sibling (in which even Eric Bogosian finds himself gasping after Vincent D’Onofrio eats all the air in the room). But Benson and Stabler keep us watching SVU. No other creatures in the Dick Wolf stable are allowed such emotional dishabille. It probably doesn’t hurt that almost every episode of SVU can be counted on to obsess about and drool all over occasions of rape and/or pedophilia.