No one denies the immense appeal of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which has reliably churned out new episodes since its 1999 debut. But like any massively successful franchise, the show falls into all sorts of predictable SVU cliches. As is the case with other popular crime shows, you can expect to find predictable SVU plots almost every other episode. And if it isn't doling out outrageous storylines, SVU gives you flat-out lies about how law enforcement actually runs. For most fans, the show's banality is something they've grown to love. While many episodes feature engaging plot twists and juicy mysteries, the cliches are unavoidable.
Law & Order: SVU may not be the only show guilty of procedural cop show tropes, but it certainly is one of the most prolific.
While SVU gets some things right, plenty of it is pretty inaccurate – that's to be expected when you have one hour to witness, investigate, and solve a crime. Unfortunately, one thing SVU gets extra wrong is rape kit testing. Medical professionals use rape kits to collect DNA evidence left behind by an attacker on their victim, a process that takes hours; they then store the evidence in the kit. On SVU, kits are tested promptly. In reality, there's a backlog on testing rape kits due to a shortage of funds and a lack of universal guidelines for law enforcement when it comes to logging the kits. The backlog of untested rape kits in the US could number in the hundreds of thousands.
This creates additional problems for victims. For many, they have no proof of the attack without the DNA evidence, so if their kit gets backlogged, then the attacker does not get caught. Not being able to seek justice to their attacker due to lack of evidence only exacerbates trauma.
One very vocal proponent of rape kit testing happens to be none other than Mariska Hargitay, SVU's Olivia Benson. She was unaware of how much of a problem untested rape kits are herself. Thanks to her own correspondence with real-life victims of assault, Hargitay made a documentary entitled I Am Evidence, which brings attention to the rape kit backlog.
At times when dealing with hot-button topics, SVU leaves the ending open for viewers to wonder whether a person is innocent or guilty. This can be infuriating because you don’t know the outcome, something you want and expect from a mostly episodic show. One such episode from Season 6, “Doubt,” does just that. In this episode, a graduate student accuses a professor of rape, but the professor insists their encounter was consensual. The detectives go back and forth with their own opinions on the case, with Benson believing the student’s story and Stabler siding with the professor.
At the end of the show, a juror reads, “We find the defendant...” and before hearing whether the professor is innocent or guilty, the end credits roll.
If you’re a fan of SVU, you definitely notice how actors appear in one episode, only to appear in another episode as someone else. In fact, a few of the show's main characters were once guest stars. Season 8's “Outsider” features Kelli Giddish playing Kara Bawson, a rape victim. Giddish eventually lands a full-time spot on the show playing detective Amanda Rollins.
Diane Neal, best known for her role as Assistant District Attorney Casey Novak in seven seasons of SVU, didn’t start on the show with that role. Before playing Novak, Neal played the role of a woman accused of raping a male stripper in Season 3’s “Ridicule.”
Anyone with passing knowledge of SVU knows Detective Olivia Benson lives a stressful life. Benson begins seeing a therapist in Season 15 after being kidnapped, and she periodically visits her in later episodes. Despite this, there are still moments where specific actions trigger Benson.
In Season 15's “American Tragedy,” Benson walks home from work one night and gets catcalled by a man, who asks her to smile for him. Instead of ignoring the man or telling him to get lost, Benson snaps, punching the man in the face and pushing him down on the ground. She then gets down beside him and makes a fist, only to snap back to reality and realize what she is doing. She walks away while muttering an apology under her breath.