Life Lessons From Law And Order: SVU’s Detective Olivia Benson
A closer look at the show's best character/writers' room toy-thing.
Olivia Benson is seeing someone. I tell my housemate this, and the fact that the writers are deliberately being secretive about who it is, and she says, “Is it a lady?” with significant interest.
“I know who it is, but they haven’t actually said who it is yet. It’s a guy.”
“I live in hope.”
In January, I unexpectedly found myself with a large amount of free time on my hands. At some point, I switched on Law and Order: SVU and became attached to the storylines, which included Benson mashing faces with a former SVU detective I didn’t have any memory of ever existing. Feverish with boredom, I went online in search of the Benson origin story, and ultimately decided I had enough spare time to justify watching all 14 seasons. Here are the things I have learnt along the way.
Everyone has been on this show.
Most of the cast of The Wire have roles in the early seasons as suspects, lawyers, cops or other bit parts. There are some pretty recognisable names (Sharon Stone, Kyle MacLachlan, Harry Connick Jnr, Mischa Barton, Jeremy Irons, Kathy Griffin, Elizabeth Banks, Henry Winkler, Fred Savage, Marlee Matlin, Angela Lansbury, Robin Williams, Patricia Arquette) who come through the precinct. And there are others who have gone on to become big names post-SVU, like Emily Deschanel and Amanda Seyfried.
Everyone agrees Ice-T is possibly the worst actor ever. His character has a pretty cool gay son called Ken, and he can always be relied upon to hothead it up now Detective Stabler’s (Christopher Meloni) no longer around, but the guy can make a serious scene seem comedic, without even really trying. Maybe that’s his appeal. BD Wong, on the other hand plays a super-earnest FBI profiler. When he left the show for a new role, lots of fans expressed their dismay (I know this because I follow Wong on Twitter, and he retweeted a lot of it), but one friend recently said: “What the fuck is with BD WONG. Why couldn’t they have hired someone who can act?” See, opinions.
They do “ripped from the headlines” stories, and they aren’t shy about it.
Over the years, SVU has covered some pretty high profile cases. Michael Jackson, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and most recently Rihanna and Chris Brown have been fictionalised. This particular storyline ended with the Rihanna character dead. Nobody ever accused SVU writers of subtlety.
Seriously. There’s a lot of fans. And a lot of fan fiction. Including plenty about Detective Benson, and Assistant District Attorney Alexandra Cabot (Stephanie March). People really want them to get it on.
And, most importantly: There would be no SVU without Olivia Benson.
Former beauty queen Mariska Hargitay speaks four languages, is a trained rape counsellor and the daughter of ’50s sex-symbol Jayne Mansfield. She is so popular that she’s now paid a reported $500,000 an episode.
When SVU began in 1999, she was young and vulnerable, new to the unit, over-involved with her cases and raising tension with partner Elliot Stabler. But Christopher Meloni (Stabler) left after 12 seasons, leaving Benson in the lurch. Perhaps she’d be better off trying her luck with the ladies.
I am aware that some of you are already screaming “BUT SHE DID HAVE THAT THING WITH BABS DUFFY!”, and yes, Babs the bisexual Greenwich Village community advocate (played by Kathy Griffin) made a play for our Lady Fair, but she was bluntly rebuffed. Anyway, that was an isolated 42 minutes in season 11, so we’ve got a long way to go before we get to Babs.
Lesson #1: If you’re a lady detective, you’ve got to have a good back-story.
This is a thing I’ve noticed a lot while watching American crime procedurals. Lady cops need “reasons” to be in law enforcement. Maybe your father got murdered (Kate Beckett, Castle) or you’re the daughter of the head of Mossad and you need to keep up the family business (Ziva David, NCIS) or you’re not really a cop, you’re a genius scientist with a cool detachment from humanity (Temperance Brennan, Bones). Is there a better back-story for a sex crimes detective then Benson’s? The product of a stranger rape, Benson has spent her life proving to herself that she’s not like her father (a rapist).
Benson beds a co-worker — fellow detective Brian Cassidy (played by Dean Winters) — at the very beginning of season one, but refuses to date him. He sulks around the unit for a few episodes, trying to get Benson onside, but the horrific nature of a case he’s assigned coupled with the rejection is just too much for his fragile heart. He departs, broken and dejected, for the cheerier assignment of vice. It’s pretty tense for a while, as Cassidy mopes around and moodily slams lockers.
Lesson #3: Turn your back on a journalist, and they’ll steal your case files for their story.
Well, this reflects badly on my profession, but it tallies pretty well with the world’s view of us. So good work, SVU writer’s room, you win the lazy-journo-stereotype award.
Benson is dating a tabloid crime writer who sweet-talks his way into a make-out session on her couch. But things go south when he suggests Benson role-play the MO of the ‘perp’ she’s currently tracking down.
Jesus Christ journo-dude, what kind of idiot are you? Benson shuts him down and heads for the shower. He sneaks a peak at her case file (NOT A EUPHEMISM GUYS) and prints a page one scoop.
Benson, angry and humiliated after having to admit to Captain Donald Cregan (Dann Florek) that she was the source of the leak, gets her own back when she turns up at the journo’s newspaper office with a bunch of creepy rape case files and loudly tells the whole room that he’s on track to become a perp, just like them. Embarrassing!
Lesson #4: Partners are off limits.
It becomes obvious fairly fast that the chemistry between the leads — Olivia Benson (Hargitay) and Elliot Stabler (Meloni) — is pushing the show down a pretty well-worn path. But we don’t ever get there, and Benson is the reason that they stay platonic. When Benson goes off to work a federal undercover case (Hargitay was having a baby in real life) in season eight, it coincides with Stabler’s separation from his wife, Kathy. He promptly gets involved with his new partner, Dani Beck (Connie Neilsen), before discovering that Kathy is pregnant and reconciling with her.
In season 11, we also meet his former partner Jo Marlowe (played by Sharon Stone), who is now an Assistant District Attorney. She asks Benson if she’s sleeping with Stabler, and then hints that she herself did. So it’s pretty obvious here that the one holding out is Benson. For the most part, Benson has no meaningful relationships throughout the 12 seasons she partners with Stabler, and instead is left frustrated that she’s missing her chance to have kids.
Oh, you knew that? Well, sorry for wasting your time. ‘Never trust a crooner’ sounds like something my Nan might have said once. Anyway, Benson’s mum died in season one, and there’s no mention of a grandmother, so she’s sadly unaware of this. Connick Jnr plays Assistant DA David Haden in season 13 of SVU, and he pretty quickly makes a play for Benson (after Stabler’s departed the unit) who starts off resistant, knowing it could lead to office awkwardness (see lesson one).
Everything seems to be going well, but a single case unravels their romance, humiliates Benson and sets a guilty perp free. At this point, it seems a bit like the SVU writers’ room likes punishing Benson. LEAVE HER ALONE, GUYS. SHE’S A HERO.
At the end of season 13, back into the frame comes good ol’ Detective Brian Cassidy, who’s undercover with a major prostitution ring. Shit goes down and the prostitute Cassidy is secretly in love with (played by former Neighbours star Pippa Black) is found murdered in Captain Don Cregan’s bed. Then, we have to wait a few months for season 14 to start, find out it was a frame job and watch Cassidy get shot (or, if you’re me, you’re just watching this on the internet in one long, unhealthy binge). Pretty soon, Benson and Cassidy are necking in the hospital and she’s apologising for rebuffing him all those years ago. It seems we’re finally able to stop wondering when Benson would find happiness.
Lesson #7: If you are Detective Olivia Benson, shit is never going to be easy.
Oh, you thought we were done? Well, no, because the SVU writers’ room clearly hates Benson. Cassidy gets arrested for rape in a complex frame up that causes significant tension. At one point in this episode, I actually wailed at the computer “WHY CAN’T YOU LET HER BE HAPPY?!”, and then I felt a deep, burning shame that I cared so much. Sorry, university education. Sorry, Mum and Dad.
Anyway, it seems someone maybe held the writers hostage and/or made them watch NCIS until they agreed not to fuck with Benson’s mojo anymore. Season 14 isn’t over yet, but Benson and Cassidy are currently on. Hargitay is only signed until the end of the current season, so maybe this is their way of allowing Benson a happy ending (again, NOT A EUPHEMISM).
So there you go. Olivia Benson is seeing someone. And it’s not a lady (sorry).
Catch Law And Order: SVU pretty much ALL THE TIME on Network Ten. Or, if you’d like specific details, the proper schedule’s here.
Sarah-Jane Collins is a freelance writer and journalist, when she can fit it in around a busy schedule of watching too many crime procedurals. A former reporter for The Age, Sarah-Jane has written for The Global Mail, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sun-Herald, and Roads & Kingdoms. She blogs (sporadically) at sarahjanenotes.wordpress.com