Review: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Season 19 | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Review: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Season 19

Culture Editor Olivia Boyce comments on the opening episodes of Season 19 of Law & Order: SVU and how the team handles some pertinant and delicate subjects

Now in its nineteenth season, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is a staple of American television. It has been nearly two decades since Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and her squad first appeared on screens, yet SVU still garners weekly audiences of around five million US viewers, and occupies a primetime slot. So, what is it about the show that continues to bring in audiences year after year? And does the newest season live up to its sizeable reputation?

This new season seems to interact even more consciously with issues and events covered in contemporary media
Season 19 promises more of what SVU has been praised for doing in past seasons, though this new season seems to interact even more consciously with issues and events covered in contemporary media. Showrunner/Executive Producer Michael Chernuchin confirmed this was his intention, telling The Hollywood Reporter that this season of SVU would be 'ripping the headlines' of more current and political events. The show has been praised for representing with integrity and sensitivity the debates around consent, accusation and due process, recovery and public discourse, and the new season seems to continue this thread.

As usual, most of the episodes function as standalone cases, with some continuing plotlines referenced throughout that mostly involve members of the SVU team. Benson’s adopted son Noah is central to an early plotline involving a challenge to her custody, as she discovers lies told by his birth mother that then threaten their little family unit, and Benson also has to deal with shocking allegations made against her that bring a previous partner back into her life. Poor Benson has been through a great many traumas in her time at the special victims unit, and season 19 is going to add to that list.

An unusual season opener puts the spotlight on Finn Tutuola dealing with his fight between what his role dictates, and what he feels is morally right
Episode 1 sees Finn Tutuola (Ice T), travel to Cuba on a "holiday", where he is in fact chasing a perp outside of the scope of his squad. Though an unusual season opener, it puts the spotlight on one of the longest serving detectives in an episode that deals with his fight between what his role and the law dictates, and what he feels is morally right. With Will Chase making a well-acted guest appearance, it’s a strong beginning to the season.

This promising start is followed by some decent showings in episodes 2 and 3, where the squad deal with cases back in New York after Finn’s return. Both are strong episodes, though the twists in the case featured in the third episode are clever and well-realised, and ADA Barba, played by Broadway and television veteran Raúl Esparza, is commanding in a scene in which he addresses a jury passionately about the ideas of the ‘fair’ versus the ‘just’. The closing moments of the episode seek to forward Benson’s storyline with Noah. The conflict is seemingly concluded, but a last-minute surprise puts Benson’s relationship with her son in danger once more, opening up a continual
storyline for the rest of the season that has the potential to be heart-breaking for Benson and fans of the series.

Episode 4, ‘No Good Reason’ is perhaps the standout of the early season, focusing on the victim of a severe cyberbullying case in a school, as a result of a sexual assault at a party she attended. The case is a highly emotional one, seemingly inspired by similar plots in other media including 13 Reasons Why and it addresses the pressures experiences by victims, particularly young people in an era of anonymous social media scrutiny, that lead the victim to begin to doubt herself. Towards the end of the episode is a powerful statement on sexual assault and bullying, a five-minute scene that will undoubtedly have an impact even outside of the scope of the show given how powerful a message it carries. It’s SVU at its best, taking a stand in a case that mirrors countless real-life examples and creating a powerful scene which could and should inspire change.

Hargitay continues to be one of the series greatest assets, not only in her acting, but in her continued and vocal advocacy outside of the show
Lead Mariska Hargitay is undoubtedly a contributor to the show’s enduring success, having starred in all seasons as Olivia Benson, making a place as one of the most iconic characters on American television. However, Hargitay also now serves as an executive producer, and having trained as a crisis counsellor for victims of sexual assault and violence to prepare for the role, is now the founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation, whose mission is to ‘transform society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse, support survivors’ healing, and end sexual violence’. It is a background that has allowed Hargitay to give an extraordinarily nuanced and compelling performance as the now Lieutenant of the squad, and she continues to be one of the series greatest assets, not only in her acting, but in her continued and vocal advocacy outside of the show. Her compassionate Benson advocates for victims whilst frankly acknowledging past traumas within her own life, and this has led her to be a character with whom many identify. Hargitay has received countless messages disclosing stories that parallel those told within SVU, and admiring the role her character has played in helping fictional characters with the same experiences shared by viewers and other people throughout our society. It is a testament to the show’s continued dedication to telling truthful stories with compassion and nuance, and to Hargitay’s standout performance, almost twenty years after she was introduced as Olivia Benson.

If the quality and variety of the first episodes are an indicator of the rest of the season, then SVU should be on schedule for a strong Season 19. With more episodes still to be aired, this season has much to offer for long-term viewers, or fans of police-procedurals, but it also undoubtedly has the power to contribute to conversations about sexual violence, survivor’s healing and the need to combat such crimes.

Season 19 of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is now currently airing on the Universal Channel. If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, more information and advice can be found at 

Recent graduate BA English, soon to be MA Literature and Culture student. Print Editor for Redbrick Culture. Appreciator of all things literary or stagey. Often found singing musical theatre tunes when I think no-one is watching. (@liv_boyce)


6th December 2017 at 9:00 am

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