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There are faint rumblings of change on the set of Special Victims Unit, the Law & Order spin-off that made its debut in 1999.

This season marked the appearance of the beautiful, mouth-breathing Michaela McManus as an assistant district attorney who prosecutes, as a stick of wood might, the "vicious sex offenders" and "especially heinous" crimes this show features.

And now it's being reported that Stephanie March, the former, also beautiful, ADA, who left the show in 2003, is returning for a six-episode stretch in February and March.

The L&O franchise (including its other execrable spin-off, Criminal Intent) has always struggled with vanishing cast members, or with having to get rid of cast members who were horrible mistakes - most notably, the Smurf-like Dianne Wiest, who played the district attorney on Law & Order so poorly that, as one friend commented, you could see her trying to formulate a thought.

While L&O has spiced itself up with the addition of Jeremy Sisto and Anthony Anderson (and hobbled itself with Linus Roache and Alana De La Garza, a surprisingly beautiful ADA), SVU has stayed, more or less, with its original cast, pushing partners Benson and Stabler, as the show's draw. But now some tabloids have reported the two stars are threatening to leave the show when their contacts end next year.

And it shows: This week's episode about rape-porn was exceptionally raunchy, but it was marred by the slo-mo acting of Meloni and Hargitay. Meloni nailed his character years ago. He is violent man who, ultimately, has more in common with the criminals he captures, a point that they often note as he slaps them around the interrogation room.

This is a now-tired gambit; think of Hannibal Lecter bonding with Clarice Starling (whom he marries in the novel's first sequel), or of Heath Ledger's Joker yelling at Batman, "You. Complete. Me." in a joke about Jerry Maguire, and in all sincerity (earlier he posits them both as despised "freaks.")

And Hargitay seems anxious to be on more Redbook covers than playing out her role as the sexiest celibate on television, a woman whose sad, futile crush on her married partner makes her seem, increasingly, hang-dog and empty.

The producers should have set them up as the show's Hart to Hart a long time ago, and had them radio-calling each other from bubble baths about sending "a big bus!" But their sexual chemistry has worn thin, and on the rape-porn show, the script's exploration of the subject illuminated certain characters' natures, and tediousness.

Surfing through the suspect's porn archives, Benson noted that the images were so vile, they "would make Jenna Jameson gag."

"And that's not easy!" piped in a suddenly raunchy, excited Ice-T (odd since he has been characterized as an asexual and is usually relegated to the shadows, brooding about his relationship with his gay son).

I was shocked, I swear it. What is happening when your favourite, formulaic and sweetly dull show goes blue?

Then, as McManus went after the defendant in court, she showed images from his private rape films, and he started yelling, then stood up and demanded that they "turn it off!"

"Are you sure? Because that's not an objection you are raising," McManus added, pointing to his tented crotch. He covered it and sat down, mortified, and I remained shocked.

Happy, though. Have the show's writers found a way to get around both their shifting (minor) cast and two sulking stars?

The squad room also got into a heated and exciting conversation about porn, something they have never done before in that setting (incredibly, given the show's premise). Benson was almost saturnine in her detestation of pornography: her mouth turned into a horseshoe of anger and distaste. This led the revitalized Fin Tutuola (Ice-T's character) to bark that he liked porn and so did his "girl," that watching it could be fun, in spite of what "prudes" like Benson thought.

Fin then starts a provocative conversation about women in porn who now, as with Jameson and others, control their image and brand, and often direct and produce the films.

The resident communist Munch (Richard Belzer) counters that taking control, as a porn star, is like graduating from whore to pimp, a maddeningly logical piece of Socratic wisdom that shuts everything down.

So off they go to prosecute the brainwashed-by-porn rapist, and the conversation lingers.

I wondered about a new show, in which all the detectives did was talk. Would this not reveal the manner in which they are policing?

Benson is a prude because she is unwilling to entertain the idea that pleasure and sexual liberty are derived, in part, through any means necessary.

And Fin's argument is juicy, but not strictly correct: He claims that watching porn has no relationship to crime, as does the defence lawyer. Yet how can we forget Ted Bundy's stern admonishment, at the very end of his life, about the danger of reading porn, a practice he was certain led to his serial rape and murder rampages.

In Chuck Palahniuk's book Snuff, a stomach-turning account of serial fornication, he, the great libertine, argues that while contemporary porn stars claim that they are acting against "feminist theory portraying [them]as either idiots or victims," Linda Lovelace (who later said she was violently coerced into working in the industry) made the exact same claim in the early 1970s.

In other words, those two leaden prudes, Benson and Stabler, are right to frown at recycled arguments posited by people who think porn is chic. When Benson asks why Fin doesn't keep his porn out in plain sight, he claims it is because of people like her, who judge him.

And he is right too. Porn should be kept in plain sight. If it's sitting on the shelf beside Forrest Gump, you have all the information you need.

Should SVU become a forum for ideas, or should they just stick to finding Korean sex slaves in dumpsters?

A happy medium would be nice, coupled with the intriguing thought that not every powerful female lawyer must be eligible to pose for Playboy or Vogue or be able to act in puppet shows, something SVU is in danger of becoming, if they don't stop shaking things up.

*****

7 days, 5 things

1. Will The Real Bitch Please Stand Up?

The National Enquirer's gossip-maven, Mike Walker, has it in for Jeremy Piven, whom he is always castigating. This week's item, Piven's Poison, virtually screeches with outrage about the actor - who plays a first-class prick on Entourage to perfection - discusses the possible fallacy of the star's "mercury poisoning" that stopped him from appearing in Speed-the-Plow, then goes on to describe him hitting on a "hottie" in a restaurant until she cried.

2. It's Over

Celebrities in film and on TV (there are too many to list) need to stop saying the following: "So-and-so called, he wants his [fill in the blank]back." This joke was most recently made famous by Jennifer Aniston, commenting on Brad Pitt and Billy Idol in Vanity Fair, and inexplicably continues, daily, in every possible dumb-ass permutation. And they had

better stop calling everyone and everything gay unless they plan to step out of their gold-lamé closets.

3. By The Time You Read

This ...

You will have seen the Golden Globes and you will still be asking, Edward Norton was an awesome Incredible Hulk, why wasn't he nominated?

4. Prince Poison!

Prince Edward made news again last week when it was announced he would not be prosecuted for allegedly beating his dogs with a stick. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said there was no evidence the Queen's youngest son actually struck the dogs, which were fighting over a dead pheasant during a hunting trip. Still, it's probably best not to get between a royal and his dinner.

5. while we're giving out awards ...

The best tabloid headline, The Star's, this week declares, Billy Joel-style, that Sarah Jessica Parker is not "moving up," but "MOVING OUT!"

L.C.

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