“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” has managed to last two decades without falling into a stale-material trap.
“You couldn’t make up what’s in the news today,” series creator Dick Wolf says, explaining how he keeps the crime scripts engaging, and, more importantly, meaningful, 20 years deep.
The New York City-set spinoff joins “Gunsmoke” and “Law & Order” as one of TV’s longest-running dramas as it enters its milestone 20th season. Premiering Thursday, the season grabs onto topics currently dominating the news cycle, from Time’s Up, to #MeToo and male sexual assault.
“First and foremost, the show has dealt so beautifully with issues that need to be in the conscious, like consent,” the series’ lead actress Mariska Hargitay says to a panel of nearly 500 “SVU” fans during the Tribeca TV Festival on Thursday night. Sitting on the panel to celebrate the anniversary, Hargitay and Wolf are joined by castmates Ice-T (Odafin Tutuola), Kelli Giddish (Amanda Rollins), Peter Scanavino (Dominick Carisi) and Philip Winchester (Peter Stone).
“I think our show in many ways is an ideal unit of how we wish sexual assault and domestic violence was met in the world. Survivors are believed, period,” she adds.
Hargitay, met with overwhelming applause, rattles off goals she’s achieved since slipping into the role of the badass Lt. Olivia Benson. Her “I Am Evidence” documentary and testifying in front of Congress about the national rape kit backlog make the short list.
“Very early into the shooting of the series, and certainly very early into the airing of the series, I learned how powerful talking about these issues could be to society,” she says. “I feel so grateful that we have brought something that has been traditionally swept under the carpet, something that has left survivors in shame and isolation, to the water cooler, to mainstream conversation.”
Through the years, the show has brought the cast lighter memories, too. Spending many seasons shooting on the streets of the city, the actress says she’s unlikely to pass by a corner or business where Benson’s team hasn’t tackled a suspect to the ground or uncovered a body.
“Twenty years of shooting exteriors; today I passed a tiny bakery and I said, ‘Oh, I made out with Harry Connick Jr. there. It’s fun to have the little memories like that of New York City,” she says.
With a milestone season approaching, the cast is hoping to create many more NYC memories — another decade, perhaps?
“I feel like I’m living a miracle. It is so unprecedented to be on a show that runs 20 years, even though Dick’s done it twice. He’s like, ‘Sweetheart, this is what I do,’ ” Hargitay jokes.
It’s not yet clear if “SVU” will outrun “Law & Order,” which ended after its 20th season. But Wolf, Hargitay and the crew are determined to make it happen.
“Every year is a potential funeral,” Wolf says. “Nobody, until very recently, had a goal of exceeding 20, but that will happen. I’m fully committed.”
“SVU” returns Thursday at 9 p.m.