Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (often abbreviated to Law & Order: SVU or just SVU) is an American police procedural, legal, crime drama television series set in New York City, where it is also primarily produced. In the style of the original Law & Order, episodes are often "ripped from the headlines" or loosely based on real crimes that have received media attention. Created and produced by Dick Wolf, the series premiered on NBC on September 20, 1999, as the first spin-off of Wolf's successful crime drama, Law & Order. The show started its 16th season on September 24, 2014, and has aired 365 original episodes as of May 13, 2015. It is the current longest running scripted non-animated U.S. primetime TV series since the cancellation of the original Law & Order in 2010 and is the sixth longest running scripted U.S. primetime TV series.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit follows the detectives of New York City Police Department's Manhattan Special Victims Unit, based out of the 16th precinct, as they investigate sexually based offenses. Originally the show focused around the senior detectives, Elliot Stabler and John Munch, and their partners, Olivia Benson and Brian Cassidy. The detectives were supervised by veteran Captain Donald Cragen and received support from Detectives Monique Jeffries and Ken Briscoe. When Cassidy transferred to Narcotics after thirteen episodes, Jeffries partnered with Munch until the beginning of the second season, when Munch was permanently partnered with Detective Fin Tutuola. In season thirteen, Detectives Nick Amaro and Amanda Rollins joined the team, with Amaro filling the void left by Stabler in the season twelve finale. The unit did not receive a full-time assistant district attorney until the second season, when Alexandra Cabot was assigned to work with the detectives. After Cabot's departure in season five, she was replaced by Casey Novak, who remained as the ADA until the end of season nine. Kim Greylek became the permanent ADA in the season ten premiere, until Cabot made a return midway through that season when Greylek departed. Cabot remained the ADA through the second half of season eleven. After Cabot's departure, the ADA void was filled by Jo Marlowe until the conclusion of season eleven. Gillian Hardwicke served as the SVU ADA during season twelve. In season thirteen, both Cabot and Novak returned as ADAs. Since the beginning of season fourteen, ADA Rafael Barba has been SVU's prosecutor.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit originally centered almost exclusively on the detectives of the Special Victims Unit in a fictional version of the 16th Precinct of the New York City Police Department. As the series progressed, additional supporting characters were added as allies of the detectives in the New York County Manhattan District Attorney's office and the Medical Examiner's office. Typical episodes follow the detectives and their colleagues as they investigate and prosecute sexually based offenses. The show starred Christopher Meloni as Detective Elliot Stabler and Mariska Hargitay as Detective Olivia Benson for its first twelve seasons until the former left the cast, unable to come to an agreement on his contract.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has been nominated for and won numerous awards, including the 2006 Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for Mariska Hargitay, the first Emmy to be received by a regular on any Law & Order series.
The series was renewed for a seventeenth season on February 5, 2015.
The idea for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit originated with the 1986 "preppie murder" case of Robert Chambers, who strangled Jennifer Levin, a woman he dated whom he later killed during what he claimed was consensual “rough sex” in Manhattan's Central Park. The crime inspired Dick Wolf to write the story for the season one episode of Law & Order titled “Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die”. Even after writing the episode, however, the case continued to haunt Wolf, who wanted to go deeper into the psychology of crimes to examine the role of human sexuality.
The original title of the show was Sex Crimes, reflecting the sexual nature of the crimes depicted on the show. Initially there was concern among the producers that, should Sex Crimes fail, identifying the new show with the Law & Order franchise could hurt the original show. Additionally, Ted Kotcheff wanted to create a new series that was not dependent upon the original series for success. Wolf felt, however, that it was important and commercially desirable to have “Law & Order” in the title, and he initially proposed the title of the show be Law & Order: Sex Crimes. Barry Diller, then head of Studios USA, was concerned about the title, however, and it was changed to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit to reflect the actual unit of the New York City Police Department (NYPD) that handles sexually based offenses. The first episode, "Payback", premiered on NBC on September 20, 1999.
Executive producer Neal Baer left Law & Order: SVU as show-runner at the end of the twelfth season, after eleven years (seasons 2–12) on the show as show-runner, in order to sign a three-year deal with CBS Studios. Baer was replaced by former Law & Order: Criminal Intent executive producer/show-runner Warren Leight. In March 2015 it was announced that Warren Leight signed a three-year deal with Sony Pictures Television, that will allow him to work on SVU one more season, the show's seventeenth season, Leight joined the show in season thirteen.
Many exterior scenes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit are filmed on location in New York City, Wolf's hometown, throughout all five of New York City's boroughs. As the NYPD encounters varied law enforcement challenges on a daily basis, the backdrop provides the writers a supply of ideal locations from which to choose.
When searching for a place to film the interiors of the show, the producers found that there were no suitable studio spaces available in New York City. As a result, a space was chosen at NBC's Central Archives building in nearby North Bergen, New Jersey, which had sat empty for some time, and featured air-conditioning, adequate parking, and 53,000 square feet (4,900 m2) of stage area. The Archives building was used for police station and courtroom scenes, with various other locations in Hudson County used for other scenes, such as a scene shot at the Meadowlands Parkway in Secaucus in 2010. The production left New Jersey for New York in 2010, however, when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie suspended the tax credits for film and television production for the Fiscal Year 2011 to close budget gaps. The show moved into the studio space at Chelsea Piers that had been occupied by the original Law & Order series until its cancellation in May 2010.
Casting for the lead characters of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit occurred in the spring of 1999. Dick Wolf, along with officials from NBC and Studios USA were at the final auditions for the two leads at Rockefeller Center. The last round had been narrowed down to seven finalists. For the female lead, Detective Olivia Benson, actresses Samantha Mathis, Reiko Aylesworth, and Mariska Hargitay were being considered. For the male role, Detective Elliot Stabler, the finalists were Tim Matheson, John Slattery, Nick Chinlund, and Christopher Meloni. Hargitay and Meloni had auditioned in the final round together and, after the actors left, there was a moment of dead silence, after which Wolf blurted out, “Oh well. There's no doubt who we should choose—Hargitay and Meloni.” Wolf believed the duo had the perfect chemistry together from the first time he saw them together, and they ended up being his first choice. Garth Ancier, then head of NBC Entertainment, agreed, and the rest of the panel assembled began voicing their assent. Eleven years after being cast, the two actors had become among the highest-paid lead actors on a drama, with each earning nearly $400,000 per episode, a salary that TV Guide said was exceeded only by House's Hugh Laurie.
The first actor to be cast for the show was Dann Florek. Florek had originated the character of Captain Don Cragen in the 1988 pilot for Law & Order and played the character for the first three seasons of the show until he was fired on the orders of network executives, who wanted to add female characters to the all male primary cast. He maintained a friendly relationship with Wolf, however, and went on to direct three episodes of the original series as well as to occasionally guest star on the show. Shortly after Florek reprised his role for Exiled: A Law & Order Movie, he received a call to be on Sex Crimes. Initially reluctant, he eventually agreed to star on the show as Cragen on the assurance that he would not be asked to audition for the role.
Shortly after the cancellation of Homicide: Life on the Street, Richard Belzer heard that Benjamin Bratt had left Law & Order. Belzer requested his manager to call Wolf and pitch the idea for Belzer's character from Homicide, Detective John Munch, to become the new partner of Jerry Orbach's character, Detective Lennie Briscoe, since they had previously teamed in three Homicide crossovers. Wolf loved the idea, but had already cast Jesse L. Martin as Briscoe's new partner. The idea was reconfigured, however, to have Munch on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit instead. Since the character of Munch was inspired by David Simon's portrayal of Detective Sergeant Jay Landsman and developed for Homicide by Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, the addition of Munch to the cast required the consent of all three. The appropriate agreements were reached and, while Fontana and Levinson agreed to waive their royalty rights, contracts with Simon required that he be paid royalties for any new show in which Munch is a main character; as a result, Simon receives royalties every time Munch appears in an episode of the show.
Dean Winters was cast as Munch's partner, Brian Cassidy, at the insistence of Belzer. Belzer looked at Winters as a sort of little brother, and told Wolf, “Well, I'll do this new show of yours, SVU, only if you make Dean Winters my partner.” Wolf did make Winters Belzer's partner, but he was contractually obligated to his other show at the time, the HBO drama Oz. Since the role on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit was only initially meant to be a few episodes, Winters was forced to leave when it was time to film Oz again. Winters returned for the Season 13 finale, “Rhodium Nights,” reprising his role as Cassidy. He also appeared (as Cassidy) on the two-part Season 14 premiere “Lost Reputation”/“Above Suspicion”. He subsequently became a recurring character into Season 15. The void left by Winters's departure was filled for the remainder of the season by Michelle Hurd as Detective Monique Jeffries, a character who Wolf promised that, despite starting out as a minor character with one scene in the pilot, would eventually develop. Hurd left the show at the beginning of the second season to join the cast of Leap Years. Munch's permanent partner came in the form of rapper-turned-actor Ice-T, who had previously worked with Wolf on New York Undercover and Exiled. Ice-T originally agreed to do only four episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, but he quickly gained affection for the ensemble nature of the cast. He relocated to New York City before his four-episode contract was up and remained with the show as Munch's permanent partner, Detective Odafin “Fin” Tutuola.
Initially the show focused exclusively on the police work of the detectives in the Special Victims Unit of the 16th precinct, with members of the District Attorney's office occasionally appearing as guest roles crossing over from the original Law & Order. From season 2 onwards the format was changed to be more faithful to the original Law & Order concept by including court cases. Stephanie March had little television experience before being cast on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, nor did she watch much TV. Nevertheless, March was cast as Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cabot at the beginning of season two but still believed that, due to the grim nature of the series, it would be short-lived. She stayed with the series for three seasons, however, and left when she believed she had reached the natural conclusion of the character's development. She would later reprise the character as a guest appearance in the sixth season and as a regular character on the short-lived Wolf series, Conviction, where she was promised more to do. Diane Neal had previously guest starred on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in the third season before being cast as Cabot's replacement, Casey Novak, in the fifth season. Neal remained with the show through the end of the ninth season, after which she was replaced by Michaela McManus. March returned to the show in the tenth season (after McManus' departure from the cast) when Neal Baer proposed Cabot receive a character arc to revitalize the second part of the season, which would continue through season eleven.
Tamara Tunie was cast as medical examiner Melinda Warner in season two after working with Wolf previously on New York Undercover, Feds, and Law & Order. Warner was initially a recurring character but became a regular character in the seventh season, and Tunie was added to the opening credits at that time. When initially cast as Warner, Tunie was appearing as attorney Jessica Griffin on the CBS daytime soap opera As the World Turns. From 2000 to 2007 (and again briefly in 2009), she appeared on both series simultaneously. In 2002, she also appeared on the Fox espionage-themed drama series 24, in the recurring role of CTU Acting Director Alberta Green. BD Wong was asked to film four episodes as Dr. George Huang, a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) forensic psychiatrist and criminal profiler on loan to the Special Victims Unit. After his four episodes, he was asked to stay on with the show.
After he starred in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and guest starred as Detective Chester Lake in the eighth season, Wolf felt that Adam Beach would be a good addition to the cast and asked him to be a permanent member beginning with the ninth season. Although Beach felt the role was a “dream role”, the character proved unpopular with fans who felt that he was designed to gradually write out either Richard Belzer or Ice-T. Feeling there were too many police characters on the show, Beach left the show after only one season. Michaela McManus was originally felt to be too young for the role of an Assistant District Attorney (ADA) before being cast as ADA Kim Greylek in the show's tenth season. McManus, months removed from a recurring role on One Tree Hill, remained with the series only half a season, however, before departing for unspecified reasons.
Paula Patton joined the cast as ADA Mikka Von. She replaced Stephanie March. However, Patton dropped out after one episode to film Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, and was replaced by Melissa Sagemiller in the recurring role of ADA Gillian Hardwicke.
Before the end of Season 12, Mariska Hargitay asked for a lighter workload. As a way of writing her out of certain episodes, a plan to have her character promoted to a supervisory role was discussed. At the end of season twelve, Christopher Meloni departed the cast, unable to come to terms with his contract. Warren Leight became the new showrunner during this same year and signed on before he knew that Meloni would be leaving the cast. The second major departure to be announced in 2011 was that of BD Wong. On July 17, Wong announced on Twitter that, “I actually do not return for Season 13, I am jumping to Awake! It’s awesome!”. Wong added, “I don’t know if or when I’ll be back! It was amazing to have such a cool job for 11 years and to be a real NY Actor.” Wong reprised his role as Dr. Huang in Season 13's episode “Father Dearest”. In response to these departures, two new main actors were hired, and several changes were made to the recurring cast.
In June 2011, it was announced that Kelli Giddish and Danny Pino would join the cast as new series regulars. Weeks later, it was announced that Stephanie March and Diane Neal would be reprising their roles as ADA Alexandra Cabot and ADA Casey Novak, respectively. The launch of Season 13 was marked with a retooling of the show that Warren Leight referred to as “SVU 2.0”. Changes that accompanied this included Tamara Tunie's being bumped from the main cast to a guest starring role and recurring actor Joel de la Fuente's not appearing for the first time since 2002. Of the latter change, Warren Leight said, “those scenes can be dry” and hired Gilbert Gottfried as a more comedic replacement. In addition to these changes, Linus Roache became a recurring cast member in his role of Michael Cutter, whom he played on Law & Order; on SVU former Executive ADA Cutter serves as the Bureau Chief for ADAs attached to the Special Victims Unit.
In season 14, Raúl Esparza joined the cast in a recurring capacity as ADA Rafael Barba and prior to the season 15 premiere, Esparza was promoted to a series regular. Also in season 15, Belzer departed the cast in the fifth episode, “Wonderland Story”, in which Sgt. Munch retired from the NYPD and took a job in the DA's office as an investigator. Later in the season, Captain Cragen announced his departure from the NYPD, which made newly promoted Sgt. Benson the temporary squad commander. In leaving the cast, Florek ended a 400 episode run as Captain Cragen.