It’s fairly easy to write off any show beginning its 17th season, even the institution Law & Order: SVU. How many more sex crimes can there possibly be for Olivia Benson (the delightfully badass Mariska Hargitay) to solve? Didn’t the show jump the shark when Benson was taken hostage by the guy from Orange Is the New Black? Is the show, in its awkward teen years, creeping into self-parody? All are valid questions, but thanks to the ceaseless cycle of terrible things happening in the world and some of the most talented actors on network television, the show continues to work.
For those who need to catch up, the previous 16 seasons are streaming on Hulu Plus, and I happened to watch all of them over the past few months without going completely insane. The best episodes are the “ripped from the headlines” stories, and last week’s season-17 opener was no exception: the show’s writers were smart enough to draw inspiration from this year’s fascinating HBO documentary miniseries The Jinx, which explored the bleak saga of millionaire real estate heir and accused killer Robert Durst.
SVU kicked things off by continuing plot points from the previous season’s crossover episodes with other shows from the Dick Wolf-iverse, Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D.: the homicide of a young girl appears to match the pattern of Greg Yates (chillingly played by Dallas Roberts), the imprisoned serial killer from last season who began his spree in Chicago and traveled to NYC, where he was caught. Part of what makes SVU endlessly entertaining is the juxtaposition of masterful performances like Roberts’s with other characters’ hyperbole, which supplies some of the show’s notorious, hilarious one-liners (“It’s all fun and games until someone loses a penis”).
Yates teams up with the police to try to find the copycat killer who—SPOILER ALERT!—ends up being a friend from medical school who also happens to work as an NYPD medical examiner. This man is the Durst surrogate, nervous tics and all. Seeing Durst’s real-life soap opera play out as a TV drama is yet more proof that truth is stranger than fiction. Already ridiculous stories of Durst’s cross-dressing, getting pinched for petty crimes (e.g., stealing a chicken-salad sandwich), and being accidentally recorded giving a sorta-kinda confession, when paired with the formidable acting of the SVU cast, is the show at its peak. Seventeen years on, SVU still makes it hard to look away.