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.”