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Law & Order SVU: Articles, 2002
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Why SVU Makes Mariska Sick
Charlie Mason, TV Guide, 2.8.02

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the sordid cases assigned to the crime fighters of NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit airing tonight at 10 pm/ET can be difficult for viewers to stomach. But, believe it or not, they are even harder to digest for the detectives' off-screen counterparts. Just ask Mariska Hargitay, who plays Olivia Benson.
"How can people tune in to these shows every week?" she muses. "Sometimes acting [the material], I feel quite sick. And, for me, the stories with the kids are the hardest, hands down."
Regardless of the toll that her work exacts, the daughter of 1950s bombshell Jayne Mansfield remains committed to carrying a badge. If her efforts can lighten someone else's load, she declares, then she's happy to bear the burden that is placed upon her. "I'm so proud of our show it sheds light on an area that people tend to shy away from. It brings to the forefront things that people are so ashamed of.
"[True-crime survivors] have grabbed me on the street or on the subway and cried and said, 'I was molested by my piano teacher; I can talk about it now,'" she adds, awestruck. "To illuminate darkness [through entertainment]... is good."
Despite the fact that the SVU cast is full of stress-relieving crack-ups "You think you're on the set of Everybody Loves Raymond," Hargitay insists there still may be trouble on the horizon for the L&O franchise. "With DNA, we're catching criminals left and right," she points out. "It's almost a problem for the writers now, because they have to creatively find a way around it."

The Sex Files
Michael Buckley, TV Guide, April 2002

Not everything Dick Wolf turns out works like gangbusters (remember the deadly Deadline?), but the Law & Order franchise continues to hum along. The original is still going strong after 11 years, and the next spinoff, Law & Order: Criminal Intent (with Vincent D'Onofrio, Kathryn Erbe, Jamey Sheridan and Courtney B. Vance) is in production. And the good news about the first spinoff, Law & Order: SVU, as it approaches the end of its second season (it's already been renewed through May 2002) is that it's a series showing steady improvement.
It struggled last year to find an audience in a Monday timeslot, where it followed the femme-fatal coupling of Suddenly Susan and Veronica's Closet. However, when the series moved in January 2000 to the old Homicide spot (Friday, 10 pm/ET), it scored NBC's biggest success in that slot since Miami Vice more than a decade earlier.
From the start, Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay as Detectives Stabler and Benson proved to be strong leads. Two other smart casting moves were the transfer of Richard Belzer's cynical Munch from the cancelled Homicide to SVU and installing Dann Florek as Captain Cragen (formerly the Law & Order detectives' boss). The presence of Munch and Cragen gave viewers a comfort quotient; as they got to know new characters, they felt reunited with two familiar faces from shows past.
Second-season additions to the ensemble also helped. Ice-T (replacing Michelle Hurd's Jeffries) quickly eased into his role as Munch's new partner, the steely "Fin" Tutuola, and Stephanie March gives solid support as ADA Alexandra Cabot.
Ice-T's previous associations with Wolf had him as a recurring villain on New York Undercover and a reformed con man in the short-lived Players. Now he and the sardonic Belzer share a low-key, deadpan camaraderie as they chase down clues and criminals. How well they work together was in particular evidence last month in an offbeat episode in which they spent most of the hour in upstate New York, pursuing a serial rapist.
The series has also benefited from cutting back on Stabler's family and Benson's background. His wife and kids were featured more often than necessary in the first season, diminishing the urgency of the storylines. This year, they appeared less frequently. Also, Benson's unhappy past (a child of rape and an alcoholic mother) was played down, but used effectively and briefly in an episode that had her expressing compassion for an assault victim.
Perhaps the most significant second-season change occurred behind the scenes when Neal Baer (formerly of ER) came aboard at midseason as head writer and executive producer. Since then, episodes have gotten even grittier and the investigations more riveting.
Cases in point: tonight's penultimate episode, entitled "Pique," an absorbing (and disturbing) tale about the making of a killer. It features an award-caliber performance by guest Chad Lowe (who shines in a series of interrogation scenes with an equally impressive Meloni) and a chilling portrayal by Margot Kidder as his possessive, wealthy mother. This is the series's high point.
And next week's season finale is not far behind: "Scourge" has superb guest shots by Richard Thomas and Karen Allen and focuses on the search for a serial killer.

Isn't That Special
Kinky crimes, arresting actors, and killer ratings make SVU the coolest Law & Order yet.
 Bruce Fretts, Entertainment Weekly, 5.3.02

It's a gray day in a bleakly industrial section of North Bergen, N.J., but inside the warehouse that holds Law & Order: Special Victims Unit's squad-room set, the mood is decidedly sunny. The NBC cop drama is wrapping its third-season finale, about a prostitute/serial killer who's terrorizing Manhattan (natch), and the cast is getting a little punchy. As the scene rolls, Capt. Donald Cragen (Dann Florek) gives his detectives an edict: ''Let's find our mystery hooker.''
Richard Belzer, ever the stand-up comedian, breaks the take and launches into a mock TV announcer's voice: ''This week, our mystery hooker is...''
''We should just have a face with a big question mark over it,'' suggests costar Christopher Meloni.
''It's a spin-off,'' on-screen partner Mariska Hargitay concludes. ''Law & Order: Mystery Hooker!''
These people know a thing or two about spinning off. Since launching from NBC's venerable institution Law & Order -- or ''the mothership,'' as it's been dubbed by Hargitay -- SVU has slowly built into a ratings powerhouse of its own. It's ranked No. 14 overall for the season, and one recent episode shot up to No. 8 for the week. It's also the only series that's gone unbeaten in its time slot among viewers 18 to 49 for the entire season. All this is even more impressive when you consider that SVU airs on Fridays, the least-watched night in that key demo. ''For everybody who's out taking Ecstasy and bouncing around clubs,'' says creator Dick Wolf, ''there's an enormous number of young adults who are still sitting at home on Friday nights and are looking for something that's not only intelligent but a shade titillating.''
SVU goes beyond titillating, however, and into the downright sordid. The NYPD's Special Victims Unit investigates cases of sexual assaults, physical abuse, and crimes against children. Not exactly ''TGIF'' material, yet viewers are flocking to it. ''It's the end of the week,'' says Wolf. ''You want to kick back and look at people who are psychologically a lot worse off than you are.''
Grappling with such depressing topics day after day can take a mental toll on the cast, though. ''When I read the script sometimes, it's like 'Christ! Enough!''' confesses Hargitay, who plays the tightly wound Det. Olivia Benson. ''I can't sleep at night sometimes. There's the occasional script that just hammers you, that you can't shower off.'' The actors ease the tension by constantly cutting up on the set, plus ''yoga helps,'' says Meloni (family man Det. Elliot Stabler). ''My hamstrings are killing me.''
SVU's journey to Nielsen success has had painful moments as well. The show initially struggled to find an audience on Mondays at 9 p.m., up against CBS' Everybody Loves Raymond, ABC's Monday Night Football, and Fox's then-heavyweight Ally McBeal. ''It was in the wrong time slot,'' says Wolf, who browbeat NBC into moving the series to Fridays at 10 p.m. midway through its first season.
Even with a better spot on the schedule, producers had a tough time establishing a consistent tone for SVU. In season one, they attempted to delineate it from the original by delving into the characters' personal lives -- a no-no on L&O, which takes a just-the-facts-ma'am approach. But exploring the characters' back stories (we learned that Benson is herself the product of a rape, and that Stabler is intensely protective of his daughters) didn't always make sense to the cast. ''They were asking you to follow a crime down this path, and then, all of a sudden, you take a left turn into my driveway,'' says Meloni. ''That didn't quite fit, but they tried to shove it in.''
Such scenes of suburban domesticity were even more jarring when juxtaposed against SVU's supersleazy cases. "The first year was much more salacious--it was about women's panties and bananas in orifices," says exec producer Neal Baer, a seven-year ER vet (and real-life doc) who took over show-running duties early in the second season. Once in charge, Baer gave the scripts a more forensic-medical focus and instituted a rule: "We can go home with Stabler only once a season."
Through all the tinkering, viewers gravitated to SVU, thanks in part to its strong leading actors: Meloni, who'd acquired a cult following via seductive-psycho roles on NYPD Blue and HBO's prison drama Oz, and Hargitay, who was previously best known as Anthony Edwards' desk-clerk squeeze on ER (and Jayne Mansfield's real-life daughter). Now Hargitay has made a name for herself on SVU--sort of. "People go, 'Oh, you're Marcia Hagerty!'" jokes the actress. "Nobody can say my name, but that's okay."
Two veteran TV names helped anchor the supporting cast from day one. Wolf moved Richard Belzer's sardonic Det. John Munch to SVU after seven years on Homicide: Life on the Street. "Munch is the guy who says what a lot of people wouldn't dare say," Belzer says of the character's enduring appeal. And Dann Florek, an original L&O cast member, reprised his 1990-93 role as Captain Cragen. "It was like putting on an old suit, and you're not sure if it's going to fit," says Florek, "and you go, 'I think it fits a little better now.'"
The show was bolstered in its second season by the addition of another pair of actors, Ice-T as Det. Odafin Tutuola and Stephanie March as ADA Alexandra Cabot, but their roles didn't automatically fall into place. "The way my character was originally written, he was kinda square--they had me in suits and such," says Ice-T (see sidebar). "Then Dick Wolf was like, 'Nah, nah, we want Ice-T as a cop.' So now I do me."
March was brought in to provide more of a legal element, but Baer balked at Wolf's desire for SVU's structure to resemble more closely L&O's half-cops, half-lawyers formula. "Dick and I have a good, healthy dialogue about how different the shows should be," says Baer. Adds Wolf, "We've had spirited discussions where I've been the one begging 'Please, don't improve the show.'"
It didn't help that nobody seemed to know who Cabot, March's character, was, least of all the actress playing her. "She was really strident at the beginning," says March, whose sole notable credit was appearing with Brian Dennehy in Broadway's Death of a Salesman. "I was so new to the industry, I didn't feel comfortable voicing my opinions." March finally found her voice this season in prickly scenes opposite Judith Light, who took a recurring gig as Cabot's hard-charging supervisor.
The Who's the Boss? alum is far from the only recognizable TV face to pop up on SVU in a change-of-pace part. The parade of guest stars has included Three's Company's John Ritter (as a man who cut a fetus out of his pregnant wife), The Waltons' Richard Thomas (as a syphilis spreader), and Saved by the Bell's Mark-Paul Gosselaar (as a gay-porn star). "We get great actors who want to dig into these complex characters," says Baer. May-sweeps episodes feature Henry Winkler ("Working with Fonzie was a goof for everyone," says Meloni), Mary Steenburgen, and Sharon Lawrence (as the "mystery hooker").
With intriguing guest stars, improved scripts, and great ratings, SVU's cast has no complaints. Well, almost. "Nothing against Jersey, I just hate it," gripes Meloni about filming across the Hudson. Still, lower real estate costs and post-Sept. 11 location restrictions have forced producers to shoot more scenes in the Garden State. "I want to be in Manhattan," explains the actor. "I love that big, crazy island." Hmm, sounds like another spin-off: Law & Order: Big, Crazy Island!
"Ice is the coolest person I've ever known," says Dick Wolf, explaining why he cast the rapper as Det. Odafin Tutuola. "People really like him--and it's not just hip-hop kids. It's white truck drivers leaning out, going 'Ice, my man!' And for a guy who wrote 'Cop Killer' 10 years ago, cops like him." Chilling in his SVU dressing room, Ice-T mutes the music video playing on his TV and raps on a variety of topics:
ON HIS CONTRIBUTION TO SVU "I bring a lot of s--- to the show. I'm the only person on the show probably anybody under 20 knows who they are. I bring black people and ethnic people. I bring an edge to the show, because at any moment I might smack the s--- out of somebody. When I got on the show, it was in the 40s. Now it's top 10. So I brought something."
ON PARTNERING WITH RICHARD BELZER "Belzer's the best. He's Jewish and I'm black, so the Klan's after both of us. Belzer is a G, an old-school cat who knows the game. He's very controversial in his comedy, and me in my music. So I think we just naturally clicked."
ON 'COP KILLER' "That record stands as what it was, which was a protest record against brutal police. All that controversy was hoopla during an election year. If I hated police, I wouldn't be able to play this role. I was writing something at the time about police in L.A. who were totally out of pocket. I wrote that record before Rodney King and the riots. America should've listened to me instead of getting mad. They might've been able to stop something."
ON SVU'S FRIDAY TIME SLOT "Well, I had another Friday show with Dick Wolf called Players, and we couldn't win against Sabrina, the Teenage Bitch. But this show is what America runs off: sex and violence. You cross sex with violence, you can always get money, man. Nobody wants to see roses and apples and s---. People want to see blood and violence and rape. It's funny, I'm walking down the street and old ladies say, 'I love your show,' and I look at them like 'You little perverted old bitch, what kind of s--- are you watching?' Broken hymens and s---. This show is for weirdos and perverts."
ON WORKING FOR DICK WOLF "He's very similar to me. That's why we get along. He's a no-nonsense, straight-up cat. I'm a no-nonsense, no-bulls--- Ice-T. And he liked that. Because everybody kisses Dick Wolf's ass. Real powerful people don't like that. They'll let you do it, but they'll have no respect for you."
ON THE SECRET OF SVU'S SUCCESS ''I used to rob banks in real life, and the trick is, it's not important that everybody in the car likes each other. It's just important that we all know how to rob banks. And when we hit [the SVU] set, we all know what the f--- we're doing.''

Arresting Development
After appearing in a lineup of short-lived series, Mariska Hargitay picks a winner with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
Shawna Malcom, TV Guide, 8.17.02

"I don't smile on this show," Mariska Hargitay says matter of factly as she sits in a New York City courtroom, preparing to shoot a scene for NBC's drama Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (Fridays, 10 PM/ET). Her dour demeanor on screen is understandable, given that her character, Det. Olivia Benson, spends her days investigating rapes and sex crimes against children. But once the cameras stop rolling, Hargitay is quick to shed both Benson's suit jacket and her no-nonsense persona. Bounding through the halls, she greets each cast and crew member by name, and when she joins a knitting circle composed of the show's makeup artists, she's quick to notice one woman's progress. "You're a pro, baby!" she says.
Such enthusiasm has been known to melt even hardcore rapper and SVU costar Ice-T. "On my birthday, I had a flight to make and we weren't gonna get done [in time]," he says. "I was having a breakdown. Mariska said, 'I'll take your lines,' and got me written out of that shot. She's a lady."
She has also helped producer Dick Wolf's sober spin-off become a hit. (During its recent third season, SVU ranked 14th among regularly scheduled primetime network programs.) "Mariska has great empathy, and viewers respond to that," says SVU executive producer Neal Baer, a former ER writer who met Hargitay in 1997, when she landed a recurring role as Mark Green's girlfriend. Off camera, he says, "[S]he has an infectious spirit. You need that on a show that deals with the stuff we deal with."
Hargitay admits SVU can take a toll. "I have dreams about it," says the 28-year-old actress. "When I'm on the subway, I'm always scanning for suspicious-looking people. This show can be dark on the soul."
Hargitay knows dark places. The only daughter of '50s screen siren Jayne Mansfield and former Mr. Universe Mickey Hargitay, the actress was just 3 when Mansfield was killed in a 1967 car crash. (Mariska, who was asleep in the backseat with brothers Miklos, then 8, and Zoltan, 6, suffered head injuries and carries with her a "zigzag scar down the side of my head" -- though, thankfully, no memories of the grisly accident.) Early in Hargitay's career, her bombshell mother cast a long shadow. Casting directors often remarked, "I thought you'd be blond[e], like your mother." When reporters asked about Mansfield, Hargitay, who has only faint memories of her mother making breakfast, grew frustrated. She found herself shying away from overtly sexual roles, determined to be taken seriously as an actress.
Then came her 34th birthday -- the same age Mansfield was when she died. Confronting the ominous year was a turning point. "I realized the only way out of the darkness is t hrought [it]. You have to face your demons. Now I feel like, 'Yeah, that's my mom, and wasn't she pretty?'" says Hargitay, who was raised in Los Angeles by her Hungarian-born dad and her stepmother, Ellen, a flight attendant. The single actress is also inspired by the fact that "when my mom was younger than me, she was not only a movie star driving around in a pink Cadillac full of Chihuahuas, she was a wife raising five kids. She was a superhero."
Hargitay has pulled off a pretty impressive feat of her own. After years of appearing in a long list of shortlived series (Cracker, Prince Street), she's found stardom at an age when most actresses begin settling for supporting roles. "I'm not a spring chicken, but I'm glad success didn't come when I was younger," she says. "Things happen for a reason, and I wasn't supposed to be here until now."

Real Life Overwhelms Fiction for "SVU" Producer
Todd Leopold, CNN, 9.9.02

On the morning of September 11, Neal Baer was doing some pre-production planning for a five-hour miniseries about bioterrorism in New York.
The idea was a pet project for Baer, the executive producer of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." A trained pediatrician, he'd spent seven years as an adviser to "ER," but the project was too big for that show.
"We had scenes where people are lined up for blocks and blocks," Baer said in a phone interview.
But as a miniseries, with the resources of "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf behind it, it could work.
The project was going well; just that morning, the front page of trade paper Daily Variety had trumpeted the program, noting it would be the most expensive such project NBC had ever done. (The headline: "Terror Strikes Wolf Camp.") Baer and a group of writers were gathered at the Chelsea Piers facility on Manhattan's West Side, ironing out details with filming scheduled to start in a week.
And then the planes hit the World Trade Center.
Baer, shocked, watched people running up the West Side Highway -- first panicky groups fleeing the initial hit, then ash-covered survivors of the towers' collapse. "It was surreal," he recalled. "I was like a [disconnected] observer."
In the days and weeks following the attacks, people from the "SVU" team based in New York -- as well as staffers from other New York-based shows -- helped out however they could.
"SVU" star Mariska Hargitay got down to Ground Zero and called uptown for pairs of boots, hundreds of hamburger patties -- whatever the rescue crews needed. Wolf, who lost a close friend in the attacks, arranged to get food and material. Baer -- who's usually based in Los Angeles -- his wife, and some writers packed cabs to get it downtown.
"SVU" and the other New York shows -- "Law & Order," "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," and "Third Watch" -- have dealt with the attacks as realistically as possible, said Baer.
"When it's reasonable to bring it up, we bring it up," he said. For example, "SVU's" John Munch -- Richard Belzer's conspiracy-obsessed character -- has said he thinks he has anthrax. "Third Watch," which is about emergency workers, devoted a special show to the attacks, intercutting cast members with real people.
"I think the New York shows have handled [September 11] really well," said Baer. "As long as it's honest, I don't see a problem. And we have to be honest so we can have a cultural debate across the country about what to do."
One of the points of the bioterrorism miniseries, he added, "was to sound a wakeup call." The miniseries was well-researched, to the point that much of what was explored in it has come to pass. The program even included an anthrax scare.
But after the events of September 11, nobody had the heart to continue with the series. The plug was pulled.
"It was a really phenomenal series," Baer said. "But we couldn't put it on after [September 11]. It was too creepy."

"Tucson" Star Does Drama in "Law & Order: SVU"
Kate O'Hare, Zap2It, 10.31.02

Fans tuning in to see actor Pablo Santos as Arizona high-schooler David Tiant in The WB's comedy "Greetings From Tucson" this Friday night at 9:30 pm. ET, have the opportunity to see him in a very different light, if they just change channels at the top of the hour.
On "Angels," an episode of NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," airing Friday, Nov. 1, at 10 p.m. ET, Santos guest-stars as a Guatemalan boy trapped in an international sex ring. "He runs away from the man who has been raping him and beating him," says Santos. "He's basically been with him for a couple of years now."
"He came here originally from Guatemala. His parents had sent him through this charity. They were told he was going to get education and all these things. The dad trusted them, but they gave him away to this man, basically."
"It's this whole thing about these men who are raping little kids, this whole group of men. They share the kids. They have an apartment, and he locks them up in their rooms, and it's soundproofed."
According to Santos, while he was in New York this past May for The WB's upfront presentation to advertisers, he visited his agents' New York office. "They wanted to get me out there," he recalls. "My mother had said that she liked that show ['L&O:SVU'] to one of the agents, and she said, 'We'll try to get him on it.'"
"Angels" also guest-stars Patrick Cassidy, who does the reverse trip from NBC to The WB when he begins a guest-starring stint on "Smallville," starting Tuesday, Nov. 5, at 9 p.m. ET.
Santos says he spent two weeks in New York, but only filmed for four days, but that was long enough to impress series executive producer Neal Baer and co-star Mariska Hargitay, who plays Detective Olivia Benson.
"We had lots of kids come in to read," says Baer, "and he was really terrific and special. He's talented and very sweet. Mariska loved working with him."
"She has a huge scene with him, where she's talking to him, trying to get him to tell her what happened. She said it just took everything for her not to cry. In a couple of takes, she did end up crying, because he's so powerful."
Often, when working with younger children in situations such as these, Baer says the scenes are shot in such a way that the child actors never hear the more explicit or difficult dialogue. But in Santos' case, they felt he could handle it.
"How old is he, 15?" says Baer. "We did think about that. I thought about that on 'ER' too, when we did kids that had been raped. With Pablo, he had to say all these things. We would never do it with, say, a 6-year-old, but we felt like, with a kid who's 15, he can articulate that. It's not something that 15-year-olds haven't heard about. We felt that it's all right."
Asked what was hard about the experience, Santos says, "I guess having to dig into the emotion of going through his experience and confronting that."
As to following himself on Friday night, Santos laughs. "I think that's cool!"

The Oz/Law & Order Connection
Televisionary, TV Guide, 11.5.02

Question: My husband and I have noticed an almost comical connection between actors from the HBO series Oz appearing in roles on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (as well as the other Law & Order shows). We realize that two of the major characters in SVU are from Oz, but several of the other Oz characters have appeared in minor roles. Is there some kind of contract agreement between these two shows? Or are these just fellow actors helping one another out? Carol B., Monterey, Cal.
Televisionary: It goes a lot higher than the actors, Carol. It's actually Oz creator Tom Fontana and Dick Wolf helping themselves to each other's cast members, a phenomenon both men laugh about since they get along rather well.
"Dick and I are old buddies," Fontana told The New York Post in 1999. "What can I say? He's got great taste in actors because he keeps stealing mine." For his part, Wolf said, both he and Fontana "have been lucky enough to have found people we can utilize in our shows that can travel effortlessly between the disparate worlds we have created."
Disparate and desperate, too. Thus you end up with Christopher Meloni going from sexual offender Chris Keller on Oz to SVU cop Elliot Stabler, the former being the kind of guy the latter would throw in jail, as the actor has pointed out in interviews. Likewise, you see Dean Winters, who plays the conniving Ryan O'Reilly on Oz, portraying SVU detective Brian Cassidy. Kathryn Erbe, who played nutty Oz murderer Shirley Bellinger, can be found on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and J.K. Simmons works as both Oz white supremacist Vernon Schillinger and Law & Order doc Emil Skoda.
Richard Belzer took an entire character (Det. John Munch) from Fontana's Homicide: Life on the Street to SVU, and so many character actors have played criminals and victims on Fontana and Wolf shows that it would make me dizzy to try and list them all. (And I'll ask fans of both producers' shows to have mercy on my mailbox and spare me all the examples I haven't listed here. Please?)

March Checks Out of SVU
Zap2It, 12.17.02

The "Special Victims Unit" will soon need a new prosecutor.
Stephanie March, who's in her third season as Assistant DA Alexandra Cabot on Law & Order: SVU, is leaving the series at the end of this season. The actress says she'd like to pursue other opportunities.
"['L&O' creator] Dick Wolf was one of the best employers I've ever had," March tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I loved working on the show, and I will miss it very much. It's just time to move on."
SVU, the first spinoff of Law & Order, is in its fourth season on NBC, where it consistently ranks in the Nielsen top 20. It follows a group of detectives who handle sex crimes and other difficult cases.
The show's casting agents are already searching for March's replacement, but Wolf is leaving the door open for her to return.
"I wish her the best in all her future endeavors, and we hope we haven't seen the last of her character," he says.
Law & Order is famous for its cast turnover; no actor has been with the series for its entire 13-season run. The cast of SVU, however, has remained fairly stable thus far. Leads Christopher Meloni, Mariska Hargitay, Richard Belzer and Dann Florek have been with the show from the beginning.
March's other credits include Death of a Salesman on Broadway and the Chris Rock comedy Head of State, due for release next spring.

Sex and the Gritty
Michael Buckley, TV Guide (date unknown)

No one ever mistook Friday for a must-see evening, but NBC definitely has a Nielsen heavyweight anchoring its lineup that night. It doesn't get the ink, nor nearly enough praise, but Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, in its fourth season and the middle child in the L&O family, has very quietly gone about its gritty business and become the highest rated Friday series on any network.
Following a somewhat slow start in its initial timeslot (Mondays at 9 pm/ET), the series moved in January 2000 to the old Homicide slot of Fridays at 10 pm/ET and scored NBC's biggest success in that time period since Miami Vice, more than a decade earlier.
What this series (like, for that matter, Law & Order in its 13th season, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, in its second) consistently offers are tense and timely stories performed by superb ensembles. From the outset, Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay proved strong leads as Detectives Stabler and Benson. Two other smart moves were the transfer of Richard Belzer's cynical Munch from the cancelled Homicide to SVU and putting Dann Florek as Captain Cragen (formerly the Law & Order detectives' boss) in charge.
The second season brought two more impressive cast additions. Ice-T came aboard as Munch's new partner, "Fin" Tutuola, and Stephanie March was introduced as ADA Alexandra Cabot. Perhaps the most significant second-season change occurred mid-season when Neal Baer (formerly of ER) took over as head writer and executive producer. Episodes became tighter and more focused.
This season, B.D. Wong, who had a recurring role as psychologist George Huang, became a series regular. Two weeks from tonight marks the return of Judith Light as Cabot's no-nonsense boss, ADA Elizabeth Donnelly, plus the first of three episodes (with possibly more to come) featuring Illeana Douglas as public defender Gina Bernardo.
Guest-cast actors, too, continue to be first rate. So far this season, they've included Sharon Lawrence, Michael Gross, and Jane Powell (very effective as an Alzheimer's victim). Last season, Martha Plimpton received an Emmy nomination for an SVU episode in which she played a member of a dysfunctional family, with Mary Steenburgen and Estelle Parsons as her mother and grandmother.
Tonight's typically suspenseful episode features Gloria Reuben as the mother of a missing 5-year-old. Having become addicted to pain killers following a car accident in which her husband was killed, Violet (Reuben) went into rehab, leaving her daughter with a neighbor "who was like a grandmother" to the child. Now Violet's back, but the neighbor has died and the little girl is missing. Thinking that perhaps her daughter may be the deceased unknown child for whom a public memorial service is being held, Violet attends, attracting the attention of Fin. The scenes between Reuben and Ice-T are particularly good, and the detective bends the rules to try to help the agonizing mother.
There's nothing fancy or flashy or excessive about this show. It tackles tough issues, tells its stories in a lean, crisp style, and doesn't offer pat solutions. Law & Order: SVU rules the night and deserves to.