In the DVD Verdict system, Judge Patrick Bromley is occasionally assigned to review box sets of television series episodes. This is his story.
Our reviews of Law And Order: Special Victims Unit: The Eighth Year (published February 17th, 2009), Law And Order: Special Victims Unit: The Eleventh Year (published October 13th, 2010), Law And Order: Special Victims Unit: The Fourth Year (published January 28th, 2008), Law And Order: Special Victims Unit: The Seventh Year (published August 13th, 2008), Law And Order: Special Victims Unit: The Sixth Year (published April 24th, 2008), and Law And Order: Special Victims Unit: The Third Year (published February 21st, 2007) are also available.
"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."
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the second series in the NBC network's enormously popular Law & Order franchise (following the original Law & Order and preceding Law & Order: Criminal Intent), sees another season—dubbed The Fifth Year—come to DVD courtesy of Universal.
Facts of the Case
Law & Order: SVU follows the cases of New York detectives Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni, Runaway Bride, Wet Hot American Summer) and Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay, Lake Placid), members of a squad known as the Special Victims Unit, a task forced dedicated to investigating sexually-based and/or child-related crimes. Joining them on the SVU are detectives John Munch (comedian Richard Belzer, Species II) and Odafin "Fin" Tutuola (rapper Ice-T, Ricochet, Leprechaun in the Hood), as well as police psychologist Dr. George Huang (B.D. Wong, Oz) and Law & Order carry-over Captain Donald Cragen (Dann Florek, Angel Heart). Season Five also sees the introduction of new Assistant District Attorney Casey Novak (Diane Neal, Dracula II: Ascension).
Since the syndication of Dick Wolf's unstoppable Law & Order, I had been urged by several people around me to give it a chance. For one reason or another, I never did; odd, considering my ongoing affection for both the police procedural and the courtroom drama. As time passed, it became more and more difficult for me to miss it—hardly an hour of the day seemed to go by without some form of Law & Order showing up on one of a half-dozen cable stations. When I eventually relented (which again makes it sound as though I was actively avoiding the series, which wasn't the case), it wasn't even the original series I happened to catch, but rather the first of its two spin-offs, Law & Order: SVU. Well, that was it for me.
"Compelling" is typically not a word I typically like to throw around when describing entertainment, but it really does seem to fit here. Law & Order: SVU immediately draws the viewer in (actually, that could be said of all three versions of the show, but for the purposes of this review we'll stick to SVU); regardless of the case at hand, each episode is riveting in its ability to create drama through the solving of a puzzle. More often than not, Law & Order: SVU functions more as pure police procedural than as drama, which is both a strength and a weakness. The focus is always on the case; unlike other police dramas, there is no time spent on exploring the characters' personal lives (save for the occasional reference to or glimpse of Stabler with his kids) or giving them any kind of behind-the-scenes drama. The Case is the Thing—any other content falls by the wayside in the interest of exploring the process. Such an approach does take away from some of the more convoluted character elements we've come to expect from other TV cop shows (including even the decent ones like NYPD Blue), suggesting that a viewer looking for that sort of thing would be better off elsewhere. SVU is all business.
Of the three incarnations of Law & Order, I'm most partial to SVU, most likely because of its cast—in particular, Christopher Meloni as Detective Elliot Stabler. I had previously seen Meloni in mostly comic roles, and was taken off guard by the intensity and immediacy he brings to his role. Stabler is a perfect example of a man defined by action—what he says isn't nearly important as what he does (or will do). Meloni wisely gives his detective more than just one shade of tough guy, however, and makes him a fully realized character; we understand his value system and emotional slant on the case without him needing to say a word. Mariska Hargitay is less interesting in her role as Detective Olivia Benson, primarily because she's not able to suggest as much with as little—she relies too heavily on the script to fill in her character. It is refreshing, however, to see a strong and convincing female character in network series who isn't required to surrender or compromise elements of her identity in an attempt to make her "sexier."
Though the series rests on the shoulders of Meloni and Hargitay, the supporting cast does its share of heavy lifting as well. Richard Belzer, a former standup comic, and Ice-T, a former rapper, aren't actors by profession, but both lend a kind of effortless authenticity to their roles as SVU detectives Munch and Tutuola, respectively. Diane Neal, who replaces former Assistant District Attorney Alex Cabot (Stephanie March, Head of State) in the first half of the fifth season, gives her A.D.A. shades of insecurity and occasional self-righteousness not evident in her predecessor's (in position only; the two are not playing the same character) relatively one-note performance. It's another element that makes the show work: the subtlety of the characterization. These characters are not cop-show clichés, but very professional—and very human—folks. They've got a job to do, like it or not—and with the cases they see, "not" is quite often the case. None of this, however, is too blatantly underscored by the writers and actors of SVU; this is one of those rare television dramas that allows its characters to define themselves through action instead of backstory and expositional dialogue.
I can also appreciate that SVU is able to play a bit faster and looser with the existing Law & Order structure—it's not as locked in to the format as the original show is, which faithfully devotes half an episode to the police investigation, and the other half to the criminal case. SVU isn't so rigid, meaning that if the police investigation is where the best story is, the script will stick with it for most (sometimes nearly all) of the episode. The same is true of with the subsequent trial, which may begin far earlier in the episode than one would expect. The focus isn't necessarily on giving equal time to both sides of the system, but rather in going where the most compelling (there's that word again) drama lies. This frees SVU up in a way, allowing the narrative to follow its own path rather than being stuck with a set of predetermined rules.
Season Five doesn't necessarily warrant its own discussion (that is, beyond a discussion of the show itself), because it's not necessarily the type of series that evolves dramatically over the years. Sure, it's found its footing a little better (and the addition of Casey Novak is a welcome inclusion), but each season—like each individual show—is basically the same as the next. That's not to suggest that it's too "seen one, seen 'em all" repetitive, but just that the structure and dramatic flow of each episode is similar. The season is still rewarding in its own right, just not in the way a typical network series, which has more of an extended narrative arc, might be. It's a testament to the skillfulness of the series that the formula has not grown tired after 22 episodes—much less after five years.
Universal's release of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit—The Fifth Year does justice to the show without adding anything particularly spectacular. There are 22 episodes included, each running about 44 minutes apiece, and all are presented in their original television aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The overall image quality of the episodes is satisfying, the shows looking about as good as they do on broadcast TV. A Dolby 2.0 audio track is also perfectly serviceable, handling all of the dialogue and small pieces of action capably. The extras are fairly skimpy and mostly fluff: an "Alumni Reel" is essentially a clip compilation of the various guest stars the show has seen in five years; a series of "Police Sketches" amounts to nothing more than brief promotional interviews with a few of the actors, though Ice-T proves to be charmingly frank and curiously insightful about his role on the show and career as an actor in general.
Regardless of the quality of the show, I can't exactly recommend buying this set—why spend money on a boxed set when you can catch just about all of these episodes on TV at any given hour of the day? I mean, it's on all the time.
Let 'em go. We need these folks on the street.
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