I’ll admit up-front that “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” has always been my least favorite major entry in the franchise. No knock on Chris Meloni, Mariska Hargitay and company, but the subject matter was always a turn-off for me, and that was even before the show went through that period of casting beloved TV stars to play sick rapists for maximum shock value.
But it’s the last piece of the franchise standing, and this year went through some major turnover, with Meloni (co-lead for the first 12 years) leaving, Danny Pino and Kelli Giddish joining the cast and Warren Leight (one-time “Criminal Intent” producer, but more recently boss of cable dramas like “In Treatment” and “Lights Out”) taking over as showrunner. Last week on Twitter, Leight was sounding the trumpet for the most recent episode, “Spiraling Down,” guest starring Treat Williams as a former star quarterback suffering from concussion-related dementia and featuring another appearance by Andre Braugher in his recurring role as defense lawyer Bayard Ellis.
I didn’t have time to watch it that night, but when I did my Wednesday night TV open thread post the next day, a few commenters sang its praises. I figured the convergence of Braugher, Leight, Williams, the subject matter (I’ve read a whole lot of Alan Schwarz’s brilliant reporting in the New York Times on the long-term effects of concussions) and my curiosity about the revamped show (I’d only previously watched Braugher’s first appearance) led me to give it a shot.
And I thought it was a very strong hour of dramatic television, aside from an ending that was probably several degrees too melodramatic for what came before. (Had this been a story on the “L&O” mothership around, say, 1992, we would have learned that Williams’ character killed himself off-camera while Ben Stone and Adam Schiff walked through the drizzle together.) In both this episode and Braugher’s first appearance, it feels like the series has taken on a more straightforward tone where the crimes are still heinous but the show doesn’t wallow in the details quite as much as I recall back in the day.
What was interesting, though, was how much the show tilted not only its sympathy, but its point of view, towards Williams and Braugher. This may not be an unusual thing for the series (again, before this year I’m not sure how long it’s been since I watched more than a few minutes of an episode, and then only to see if Munch was doing something funny), but it did feel like the show temporarily turned into a spin-off about Braugher’s character – which, considering how great Braugher is, I wouldn’t exactly object to.
I’m curious, though, how the “SVU” die-hards – if there are many of you around these parts – feel about the state of the show. The ratings are down from last year, and the show’s been trending down in general, so it’s not clear how many Meloni fans defected versus age, entropy and the fact that it’s on NBC. But if you’re a long-timer, how have you felt about this incarnation of the show? And has anyone come to the show for the first time in a while (if ever) because of the changes?
Have at it. What say you on “SVU” circa December 2011?