|It's a gray day in a bleakly industrial section of North Bergen, N.J., but inside the warehouse that holds Law & Order: Special Victims Unit's squad-room set, the mood is decidedly sunny. The NBC cop drama is wrapping its third-season finale, about a prostitute/serial killer who's terrorizing Manhattan (natch), and the cast is getting a little punchy. As the scene rolls, Capt. Donald Cragen (Dann Florek) gives his detectives an edict: ''Let's find our mystery hooker.'' |
Richard Belzer, ever the stand-up comedian, breaks the take and launches into a mock TV announcer's voice: ''This week, our mystery hooker is...''
''We should just have a face with a big question mark over it,'' suggests costar Christopher Meloni.
''It's a spin-off,'' on-screen partner Mariska Hargitay concludes. ''Law & Order: Mystery Hooker!''
These people know a thing or two about spinning off. Since launching from NBC's venerable institution Law & Order -- or ''the mothership,'' as it's been dubbed by Hargitay -- SVU has slowly built into a ratings powerhouse of its own. It's ranked No. 14 overall for the season, and one recent episode shot up to No. 8 for the week. It's also the only series that's gone unbeaten in its time slot among viewers 18 to 49 for the entire season. All this is even more impressive when you consider that SVU airs on Fridays, the least-watched night in that key demo. ''For everybody who's out taking Ecstasy and bouncing around clubs,'' says creator Dick Wolf, ''there's an enormous number of young adults who are still sitting at home on Friday nights and are looking for something that's not only intelligent but a shade titillating.''
SVU goes beyond titillating, however, and into the downright sordid. The NYPD's Special Victims Unit investigates cases of sexual assaults, physical abuse, and crimes against children. Not exactly ''TGIF'' material, yet viewers are flocking to it. ''It's the end of the week,'' says Wolf. ''You want to kick back and look at people who are psychologically a lot worse off than you are.''
Grappling with such depressing topics day after day can take a mental toll on the cast, though. ''When I read the script sometimes, it's like 'Christ! Enough!''' confesses Hargitay, who plays the tightly wound Det. Olivia Benson. ''I can't sleep at night sometimes. There's the occasional script that just hammers you, that you can't shower off.'' The actors ease the tension by constantly cutting up on the set, plus ''yoga helps,'' says Meloni (family man Det. Elliot Stabler). ''My hamstrings are killing me.''
SVU's journey to Nielsen success has had painful moments as well. The show initially struggled to find an audience on Mondays at 9 p.m., up against CBS' Everybody Loves Raymond, ABC's Monday Night Football, and Fox's then-heavyweight Ally McBeal. ''It was in the wrong time slot,'' says Wolf, who browbeat NBC into moving the series to Fridays at 10 p.m. midway through its first season.
Even with a better spot on the schedule, producers had a tough time establishing a consistent tone for SVU. In season one, they attempted to delineate it from the original by delving into the characters' personal lives -- a no-no on L&O, which takes a just-the-facts-ma'am approach. But exploring the characters' back stories (we learned that Benson is herself the product of a rape, and that Stabler is intensely protective of his daughters) didn't always make sense to the cast. ''They were asking you to follow a crime down this path, and then, all of a sudden, you take a left turn into my driveway,'' says Meloni. ''That didn't quite fit, but they tried to shove it in.''
Such scenes of suburban domesticity were even more jarring when juxtaposed against SVU's supersleazy cases. "The first year was much more salacious--it was about women's panties and bananas in orifices," says exec producer Neal Baer, a seven-year ER vet (and real-life doc) who took over show-running duties early in the second season. Once in charge, Baer gave the scripts a more forensic-medical focus and instituted a rule: "We can go home with Stabler only once a season."
Through all the tinkering, viewers gravitated to SVU, thanks in part to its strong leading actors: Meloni, who'd acquired a cult following via seductive-psycho roles on NYPD Blue and HBO's prison drama Oz, and Hargitay, who was previously best known as Anthony Edwards' desk-clerk squeeze on ER (and Jayne Mansfield's real-life daughter). Now Hargitay has made a name for herself on SVU--sort of. "People go, 'Oh, you're Marcia Hagerty!'" jokes the actress. "Nobody can say my name, but that's okay."
Two veteran TV names helped anchor the supporting cast from day one. Wolf moved Richard Belzer's sardonic Det. John Munch to SVU after seven years on Homicide: Life on the Street. "Munch is the guy who says what a lot of people wouldn't dare say," Belzer says of the character's enduring appeal. And Dann Florek, an original L&O cast member, reprised his 1990-93 role as Captain Cragen. "It was like putting on an old suit, and you're not sure if it's going to fit," says Florek, "and you go, 'I think it fits a little better now.'"
The show was bolstered in its second season by the addition of another pair of actors, Ice-T as Det. Odafin Tutuola and Stephanie March as ADA Alexandra Cabot, but their roles didn't automatically fall into place. "The way my character was originally written, he was kinda square--they had me in suits and such," says Ice-T (see sidebar). "Then Dick Wolf was like, 'Nah, nah, we want Ice-T as a cop.' So now I do me."
March was brought in to provide more of a legal element, but Baer balked at Wolf's desire for SVU's structure to resemble more closely L&O's half-cops, half-lawyers formula. "Dick and I have a good, healthy dialogue about how different the shows should be," says Baer. Adds Wolf, "We've had spirited discussions where I've been the one begging 'Please, don't improve the show.'"
It didn't help that nobody seemed to know who Cabot, March's character, was, least of all the actress playing her. "She was really strident at the beginning," says March, whose sole notable credit was appearing with Brian Dennehy in Broadway's Death of a Salesman. "I was so new to the industry, I didn't feel comfortable voicing my opinions." March finally found her voice this season in prickly scenes opposite Judith Light, who took a recurring gig as Cabot's hard-charging supervisor.
The Who's the Boss? alum is far from the only recognizable TV face to pop up on SVU in a change-of-pace part. The parade of guest stars has included Three's Company's John Ritter (as a man who cut a fetus out of his pregnant wife), The Waltons' Richard Thomas (as a syphilis spreader), and Saved by the Bell's Mark-Paul Gosselaar (as a gay-porn star). "We get great actors who want to dig into these complex characters," says Baer. May-sweeps episodes feature Henry Winkler ("Working with Fonzie was a goof for everyone," says Meloni), Mary Steenburgen, and Sharon Lawrence (as the "mystery hooker").
With intriguing guest stars, improved scripts, and great ratings, SVU's cast has no complaints. Well, almost. "Nothing against Jersey, I just hate it," gripes Meloni about filming across the Hudson. Still, lower real estate costs and post-Sept. 11 location restrictions have forced producers to shoot more scenes in the Garden State. "I want to be in Manhattan," explains the actor. "I love that big, crazy island." Hmm, sounds like another spin-off: Law & Order: Big, Crazy Island!
"Ice is the coolest person I've ever known," says Dick Wolf, explaining why he cast the rapper as Det. Odafin Tutuola. "People really like him--and it's not just hip-hop kids. It's white truck drivers leaning out, going 'Ice, my man!' And for a guy who wrote 'Cop Killer' 10 years ago, cops like him." Chilling in his SVU dressing room, Ice-T mutes the music video playing on his TV and raps on a variety of topics:
ON HIS CONTRIBUTION TO SVU "I bring a lot of s--- to the show. I'm the only person on the show probably anybody under 20 knows who they are. I bring black people and ethnic people. I bring an edge to the show, because at any moment I might smack the s--- out of somebody. When I got on the show, it was in the 40s. Now it's top 10. So I brought something."
ON PARTNERING WITH RICHARD BELZER "Belzer's the best. He's Jewish and I'm black, so the Klan's after both of us. Belzer is a G, an old-school cat who knows the game. He's very controversial in his comedy, and me in my music. So I think we just naturally clicked."
ON 'COP KILLER' "That record stands as what it was, which was a protest record against brutal police. All that controversy was hoopla during an election year. If I hated police, I wouldn't be able to play this role. I was writing something at the time about police in L.A. who were totally out of pocket. I wrote that record before Rodney King and the riots. America should've listened to me instead of getting mad. They might've been able to stop something."
ON SVU'S FRIDAY TIME SLOT "Well, I had another Friday show with Dick Wolf called Players, and we couldn't win against Sabrina, the Teenage Bitch. But this show is what America runs off: sex and violence. You cross sex with violence, you can always get money, man. Nobody wants to see roses and apples and s---. People want to see blood and violence and rape. It's funny, I'm walking down the street and old ladies say, 'I love your show,' and I look at them like 'You little perverted old bitch, what kind of s--- are you watching?' Broken hymens and s---. This show is for weirdos and perverts."
ON WORKING FOR DICK WOLF "He's very similar to me. That's why we get along. He's a no-nonsense, straight-up cat. I'm a no-nonsense, no-bulls--- Ice-T. And he liked that. Because everybody kisses Dick Wolf's ass. Real powerful people don't like that. They'll let you do it, but they'll have no respect for you."
ON THE SECRET OF SVU'S SUCCESS ''I used to rob banks in real life, and the trick is, it's not important that everybody in the car likes each other. It's just important that we all know how to rob banks. And when we hit [the SVU] set, we all know what the f--- we're doing.''