Judge David M. Gutiérrez doesn't know how much more degradation he can take—but it's much easier when Mariska Hargitay's around.
"Now I'm a pain in my own ass."—Detective John Munch
The New York Special Victims squad takes on the dregs of humanity in their sophomore season. Chung-chung.
Facts of the Case
Spread out over three double-sided discs, Universal has finally unveiled Law & Order: Special Victim's Unit—The Second Year. In its second year, SVU sees its cast expand. Regular detectives Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay, Lake Placid), John Munch (Richard Belzer, Homicide: Life on the Street), Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni, Oz) and Captain Donald Cragen (Dan Florek, Law & Order) are joined by former Narcotics Detective Odafin "Fin" Tutuola (Ice-T, New Jack City), new Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cabbot (Stephanie March, Head of State), and FBI Psychologist Dr. George Huang (B.D. Wong, Oz). The squad also contends with a slew of sex crimes involving police brutality, rape, child abuse and neglect, and a serial killer.
Definitely the darkest of the four Law & Order shows, SVU challenges the established L&O formula, while delving into areas the other shows will not. For the most part, the mother ship show and its spawn do very little to highlight the lives of their cast. Given the type of crimes committed and addressed on this show, SVU would do itself a strong disservice if it didn't illustrate the impact of "The Job" on the lives of its detectives and lawyers. While maintaining a strong story, the show expands its characters, making them feel much more real much faster than a typical L&O show would.
The cast and its chemistry propel the show above television's wasteland of refuse. The second year shows one of my favorite detectives of all time, Olivia Benson, becoming three-dimensional. In Season One, Benson kept reminding the viewer—episode in and episode out—the reason she was in the Special Victims Unit was because she was the product of rape. This time around, she's a stronger presence who has allowed her life to become "The Job." It doesn't hurt that Mariska Hargitay is one of the most captivating women ever seen on television. Watch "Paranoia" and "Taken" for the season's best Hargitay performances. I love this show because of Mariska Hargitay. In short, I love Mariska Hargitay.
Christopher Meloni's handling of his role as Detective Elliot Stabler is equally as strong. He continually gives off the impression that he could pop at any moment. Stabler's entire motivation appears to be the protection of his family, yet there's a hint that it's possible they may need more protection from him than from the rest of the world. Watching Meloni go from killer Chris Keller on Oz to Stabler indicates his versatility. He and Hargitay complement each other well, casting aside any clichéd romantic overtones another show would have. SVU instead allows them to develop as partners.
Rounding out the regular cast, Richard Belzer and Dan Florek maintain their intricate policeman personas. As Captain Cragen, Florek's the sort of policeman that should be precinct standard. He's unflappable. New additions Cabbot and Fin are equally as interesting. While it's not always easy to tell if Ice-T is acting or just being Ice-T, Fin grounds the series with a balancing conservative, this-is-how-it-is view that gels nicely with Munch's cynicism. ADA Cabbot doesn't get to strut her stuff in Season Two, but it's clear that the seeds are planted for a stronger role in the years to come. The same can be said with B.D. Wong's Dr. Huang character. Introduced in the penultimate episode of the season, it's evident his presence will become more important as the show progresses.
No L&O show would be complete without strong stories, something SVU has in spades. Even though the subject matter gets gruesome and repulsive, it's near impossible not keep watching. Thankfully, the episodes never reach a movie-of-the-week schmaltz. Even though an episode can have a happy ending, it's important to remember that every story is generated through a terrible act, making any redemption that much more tragic. None of the shows included this season rely on any previous knowledge of what has come before, allowing each SVU outing a possible starting point for any viewer.
Standout episodes on this set include:
A number of special features see inclusion on this DVD set. Every SVU fan will enjoy the selection of deleted scenes. Unfortunately, it's not always easy to tell where the scene falls in an episode. Also included are a Mariska Hargitay profile, the highlight of the DVD set as Hargitay explains how she made it in the industry and how she approaches her role; a Christopher Meloni profile, similar to Hargitay's; a "Sex Crimes and Storylines" featurette explaining some of the topics the show tackles; a featurette about how real Special Victims Unit detectives feel about the show; and a featurette showing how fun a day on the SVU set can be. All running under six minutes, the featurettes could have done with more run time. Still, any L&O viewer will enjoy them.
Presented in Full Frame, the picture holds up well. Occasionally, the darker tones can look murky, but these instances are few and forgivable. The Dolby Digital 2.0 sound mix is adequate. It's not about the technical flash, it's about the story.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What have they done to Munch? Anyone who watched Detective Munch on Homicide: Life on the Street will wonder what happened to their favorite Baltimore detective. He no longer is as caustic, as cynical or as conspiracy driven as he was before. In fact, at the close of "Legacy," it seems Munch is detailing his upbringing in New York. Munch is from Maryland. Here endeth the geek gripe.
It's not easy to sit through over fifteen hours of human torment. SVU is best served in small doses.
It's still boggling why the Law & Order sets have no commentaries. While not as bare as previous sets, we could still do with more special features. Since anyone can turn on their television and watch hundreds of hours of these shows, there should be something that would make someone want to buy the DVDs instead of watching them for free. Perhaps a Mariska Hargitay box set is in order.
The best of the bunch, SVU is one of the best things out there. Everyone should watch it.
How can any court rule against Law & Order: Special Victim's Unit? Still, I would like to see Ms. Hargitay in my chambers.
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