Universal // 2007 // 1067 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ian Visser (Retired) // January 28th, 2008
1067 minutes of rape, sodomy, abuse, and murder. It must be a Law and Order: SVU DVD set!
"In the criminal justice system, sexually-based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories."
Sexual crimes are tough to investigate and even tougher to prosecute. In New York City, the task falls to Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni, Runaway Bride) and Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay, Lake Placid), two detectives who are backed up on the street by fellow dicks John Munch (Richard Belzer, Scarface) and Odafin "Fin" Tutuola (Ice-T, New Jack City). Supporting the detectives are Assistant District Attorney Alex Cabot (Stephanie March, 30 Rock) and FBI shrink Dr. George Huang (B.D. Wong, Oz). Directing the efforts from the station house is Captain Donald Cragen, played by Law and Order alumni Dann Florek (Hard Rain). Together the group attempts to avenge victims both alive and dead, and deliver justice to those who need it most.
Universal now presents all twenty-five episodes of the 2002-03 seasons across five disks. Does Law and Order: Special Victims Unit: The Fourth Year build on the success of the previous seasons? Let's investigate...
Each show during the course of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit: The Fourth Year follows a reliable pattern. A crime of a sexual nature is discovered, and detectives Stabler and Benson appear on the scene to begin their investigation. You name it, they catch it: rape, abuse, child molestation, murder -- it all falls in their laps. Over the course of an episode, twists and turns will reveal that what seems to be an open-and-shut case may be more than it first appears. As the suspect (or suspects) is identified, the cops turn the case over to the legal side of the team to bring it on home.
One of the major differences between the original Law and Order series and its SVU offshoot is how the investigation element continues for the duration of each episode. The SVU detectives spend the whole of the show working with the medical and legal teams to close the case out, rather than simply disappearing after thirty minutes. The result is a show that feels more like a whole, rather than two shows stuck together in half-hour blocks. Unique to other examples in the police drama genre is how the show avoids delving into the personal lives of its detectives. Many cop shows litter the back-story of each character with broken marriages, alcoholism, or other sins in an attempt to flesh out the players. SVU goes the other direction, relying on the skills of the actors and excellent writing to tell us what we need to know. We learn a few details over the seasons (Stabler has four kids at home, Benson is a child of rape) but the larger focus always remains on the case at hand.
Much of what makes Law and Order: Special Victims Unit such a pleasure is how it rewards viewers who enjoy mature television. Plot twists come fast and furious over the course of an episode, and the show maintains a dignified feeling that is appropriate when dealing with uncomfortable material. Viewers are treated to plenty of unsettling events and behavior but it never goes over the top to become exploitive or cheap. Occasionally the cops manage to get their man (or woman) and close out an episode with a happy ending, but the results are just as often unexpected or inconclusive. Either way, each case is resolved in such a way that is realistic, if sometimes less pat that what we have come to expect of a "typical" cop show.
As with many long-running series, the cast of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit: The Fourth Year gets a chance to fully inhabit their characters. Of the players, Meloni gets the best material to work with; his Stabler constantly treads a fine line between wanting justice and seeking revenge. Stabler is the one who feels the weight of his job the most, and his desire to protect his children from the evil he sees on a daily basis is often the centre of the show's emotional balance. Rapper-turned-actor Ice-T and comedian-turned-actor Richard Belzer get the majority of the laughs with their "odd couple" routine; watching the street-wise Tutuola match quips with the libertarian (and somewhat paranoid) Munch is one of the highlights of the show. The real casualty among the principle actors is Hargitay, who gets surprisingly little from the show's writing. Despite being front and center for the majority of the episodes, the Benson character is so often under-written that her presence seems at times like an excuse for Stabler to have someone to talk to. It's a shame, because when Hargitay gets the chance to let loose and emote, she more than holds her own.
In supporting roles, B.D. Wong shines when his psychiatrist character is called in to make a mental assessment or profile or a suspect. Wong brings a quiet sense of dignity to a man who has to deal with a mountain of perversion and ugliness, and it's too bad he doesn't get more of a chance to contribute. Tamara Tunie (Sex and the City) as Medical Examiner Warner follows in the same vein; her character deals with the grisly results of violence day-in and day-out, but never succumbs to it. Rounding out the cast are Stephanie March and Dann Florek, who both bring solid chops to the table. Florek is only a couple of years away from marking his twentieth anniversary of performing in one Law and Order franchise or another, and it's tough to imagine the show without him.
The full-frame transfer is typical television quality, generally solid but occasionally subjected to graininess. The audio is the standard two-channel offering, but the dialogue is very clear and the occasional gunshot or busted-in door impacts on the eardrums nicely. English and Spanish subtitles are offered for all episodes.
As for special features, there may be something fishy going on. The Universal website claims that disk five of the set contains a bonus feature called "Special Letters Unit," but a review of the menu reveals no such option. It doesn't appear to be included on any of the other disks, either, so if it's on here, I can't find it.
Although it's handled with a minimum of exploitation, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit: The Fourth Year is still a parade of misery and sexual violence. There is enough here to make some viewers squeamish, and it's understandable why some people may find it too much to take at times, especially when young children are the victims.
In addition, fans of the show can probably catch most of these episodes in near non-stop syndication, so you'll have to decide if you like this particular season enough to shell out for the complete collection.
Law and Order: Special Victims Unit: The Fourth Year is a great show at the top of its form. It's too bad about the non-existent extras, but there is more than enough quality across the set's twenty-five episodes to justify picking it up.
The DNA match came back negative, and there's no trace of hair or fluids on the defendant. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 1067 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site
* DVD Verdict Review - The Second Year
* DVD Verdict Review - The Third Year
* DVD Verdict Review - The Fifth Year