By Michael Slezak
Updated October 18, 2006 at 06:38 PM EDT

For me, NBC’s Law & Order franchise has long been the TV version of Lunesta. This isn’t to say the New York City-set crime procedurals are so boring that they put me to sleep, but rather, they offer me a soothingly predictable formula that — despite focusing on twisted murder cases — prepares me for the moment the butterfly lands on my hand. This season, however, I fear that something’s changed. Either I’m becoming more skittish about TV violence, or Dick Wolf’s two longest-running cash cows (original L&O, and L&O: SVU) are devolving into the stuff of gratuitous nightmares.

Take last Friday’s original version L&O, for example. It opened with the videotaped beheading of a Muslim-American victim, shown right up to the point that his hooded killers pressed a humongous blade to his throat. Moments later, the show’s intrepid detectives walked over to a news truck and watched the same exact scene unfold a second horrific time. Did the show’s producers think one helping wasn’t unsettling enough? Or are they determined to prove, at any cost, that L&O provides an “edgier” kind of entertainment than math-geek timeslot competitor Numb3rs?

Just as distressing, last night’s Law & Order: SVU storylinefocused on a rapist who collected urine samples from his victims (oneof whom was curiously named Elizabeth Hassenback) so he could predicttheir ovulation cycles, then return to attack them again in an attemptto impregnate them. (Ew!) Not only did we have to endure excruciatinglydetailed accounts of the attacks (“He scrubbed me raw, inside and out”),but then we were treated to the sight of one of the victims lying deadin crimson-filled bathtub, having recently slit her own wrists. Oh, andlet’s not forget Det. Beck (Connie Nielsen, subbing for MariskaHargitay’s Det. Benson) bullying a traumatized (and pregnant) thirdvictim into offering an amniotic fluid sample to help nail a suspectedperp. Pretty ugly stuff. And sorry, NBC, not even that leering,unnecessary shot of Christopher Meloni (pictured) in his tighty-whitiescan make up for it. Did any of you catch the most recent L&O or L&O:SVU episodes? And if so, am I the only one who’s perturbed by its amped-up ick factor?