We all have those shows that we binge watch every time a new season comes out on Netflix (and then binge watch again whenever we need to procrastinate studying for important exams that will determine our future). While there is really no way for me to justify watching every episode of “The Office” or “Grey’s Anatomy” multiple times, there is one show that I can justify binge-watching, based on how much I’ve learned from it and how culturally relevant it is: “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.”
“Law and Order: SVU” is a police procedural dramas about detectives who work in the Special Victims Unit of the New York Police Department, revolving around Detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay, “The Love Guru”). Special Victims are victims of sex crimes, including rape, sexual assault, trafficking and child abuse; the show can be hard to watch, as some of the crimes the show addresses are among the worst things humans can do to each other.
However, it’s addicting. The central characters are fully-developed, complex people and the characters that particular episodes revolve around are three-dimensional, often making viewers question stereotypes that they may hold about people such as prostitutes, sex workers and rapists. You might wonder how many times they can have episodes about prostitutes, porn stars or pedophiles without starting to sound repetitive, but the show never gets redundant.
The main reason “SVU” is so compelling is its penchant for ripping ideas from current headlines; many episode arcs transparently portray real-life occurrences. However, the writers and actors of the show don’t ever exploit or trivialize experiences of victims for good television; they explore these stories with sensitivity and depth. Some of the most famous cases that have had episodes based on them include those of Jerry Sandusky, Eliot Spitzer, Casey Anthony and more recently the Steubenville rape case and Elliot Rodger’s murders. The latter two episodes, respectively titled “Girl Dishonored” and “Holden’s Manifesto” shed light on how skewed media coverage of sex crimes can be, and how aspects of misogynistic attitudes are still pervasive in our culture.
I’ve seen almost every single episode of “SVU” (although I’m proud of it, I refuse to calculate how many hours of my life I’ve spent watching this show), and there are countless scenes that are not only examples of amazing writing, but perfect representations of current attitudes in society. Two of my favorite scripted lines ever said in the show are “She’s not a victim, she’s a prostitute!” and “I didn’t know you could rape a girl like that,” (referring to a porn star). Statements like these obviously sound horrific and ridiculously wrong in the show — but when you hear about similar things that real people in the world have said, (see here: Todd Akin’s definition of “legitimate” rape) they don’t sound so ridiculous anymore.
“SVU” is important because it highlights everything that can go wrong in how we approach sex crimes in general. It explores police corruption, media coverage and sexual assault/rape in the workplace, military, politics and university campuses. Some people say “SVU” over-dramatizes situations, and some college students whose stories have more or less been the foundation for episodes have expressed frustration over how the writers make it seem like justice is more quickly obtained than it can be in real life. However, they have also stated that despite some flaws, they’re glad “SVU” is provoking discussions about issues like rape culture and sexual assaults, putting a spotlight on a widespread problem that is too often swept under university campuses’ metaphorical rugs.
All of the actors have affirmed that this show has affected them positively, making them more aware of what is going on around them, and the same can be said for people who watch it. As long as “SVU” can serve as a facilitator of discussions about important topics, while still being one of the most well-written and addicting shows on TV, I will continue to watch it religiously; if you aren’t already, I highly suggest you do too.