Why 'Law & Order: SVU' Is Still as Popular as Ever in Its 400th Episode

Cast, showrunners, and experts weigh in on the iconic show's lasting appeal.

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If you've ever watched an all-day marathon of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, there's a 100 percent chance you can recite the following speech by heart: "In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories."

It's been nearly two decades since Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler began investigating sexual crimes on Law & OrderSVU—the most beloved of many, *many* Law & Order spin-offs. But while Law & Order ended in 2010, SVU will air its 400th episode on February 8, and—thanks to consistently strong ratings and a dedicated fan base—there appears to be no end in sight.

This is the part where I confess that I'm a loyal SVU fan of many years. I began watching the show in the early '00s when I was in high school (I was very cool), and I even named my cat Olivia Benson before Taylor Swift made it trendy (again, very cool). But as devoted as I am, it's surprisingly hard to elucidate exactly why I love SVU so much. What it is about this show that makes it fresh and relevant well into the new millennium? And will it, actually, ever end? I turned to a group of experts to answer that very question.

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Expert No. 1: Rick Eid, Showrunner

Rick Eid, a longtime member of the Law & Order family, took the reins from EP Warren Leight at the beginning of Season 18. "I was just trying to keep the legacy of great work," he tells MarieClaire.com. "I wasn't trying to put some new magical spin on it. It clearly isn't broken, so there's nothing to fix."

That said, he does have some compelling theories as to why SVU has endured:

1) Creator Dick Wolf: "Dick demands that the writers tell interesting, socially relevant, and topical stories. It's not just a show about sexual assault crimes. It's about how you use those crimes as a platform to tell a story about politics, class, religion—something that's happening in our society."

2) Actress Mariska Hargitay: "She's just a force of nature, and she's a brilliant actress. She's got this amazing ability to empathize and relate to the victims on our show, that I think the audience really responds to that. It feels natural and real."

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Expert No. 2: Mariska Hargitay, Star, Executive Producer, Director

SVU wouldn't be SVU without Hargitay, but while everyone fans out over her, she's most inspired by what a tangible difference the show has made in people's lives. "SVU has become a place of meeting, a place of shared suffering, shared outrage, shared redemption," she says. "I can't tell you what a gift that has been in my life, to participate in creating a place of community. And community, in the simplest terms, is the end of isolation. I know the show has saved lives. I can't tell you how many times I read the words 'I've never told this to anyone' in the letters I got from survivors disclosing their stories of violence and abuse to me."

Recently, while cleaning out old papers, the iconic actress found the casting sheet for her SVU audition. "I was just amazed when I thought about all that this show has given me over the years," she says. "Dick Wolf gave me an opportunity that has continued to grow and change, and I am filled with gratitude for that. More than anything, I just feel deeply proud of what we've all built together."

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Expert No. 3: Kelli Giddish, Star

For years, SVU was synonymous with the team of Benson and Stabler. So when Giddish joined the series as Detective Amanda Rollins in Season 13, she had high expectations to live up to. "I was never nervous, but I had confidence in what I was going to bring," she says before citing SVU's inherent topicality as a reason for its success. "As my mom says, if you wanna know what's going to be in the news tomorrow, watch SVU tonight. It's crazy and I wish that that wasn't true, that things in the real world are often reflected in the stories we tell, but I think that is a major reason it doesn't get old or stale."

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Experts No. 4 and 5: Aviv Rubinstien and Matthew Reuter, Podcast Hosts

Childhood friends Aviv and Matt re-watch and discuss every episode of SVU in their podcast Special Viewing Unit. The pair are only on Season 2, but they've also noticed how topical the show is. "This is still real today," Reuter says. "The subject matter of the show is horrible, but it's also good to have someone holding a mirror up to society on a weekly basis."

Rubinstien notes that a Season 2 episode called "Consent" could have been ripped from a headline in 2017 rather than 2001. "That was a big eye-opening moment for me. If that episode had aired this year, everyone would be convinced that it was in reference to the Brock Turner case, and yet it was from 17 years prior."

Plus, there's the Mariska factor. "It wasn't until we started the podcast that I realized how so many people—on the Internet, at least—view Mariska Hargitay and her character Olivia Benson as this force of good in the world," Reuter says. "There are a lot of people who are so devoted to the idea of Mariska and Olivia, and what they stand for: protecting survivors of sexual assault and bringing the perpetrators to justice."

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Expert No. 6: Chris Harnick, E! News TV Editor

Chris Harnick has been covering SVU for seven years. He's even been on the show—twice. The first was an ill-fated appearance as an extra in a Bronx strip club (he was cut from the episode), and the second time around he was handed a now-iconic line asking guest star Marcia Cross about her husband's rectal probe.

"Because it was one of the first shows I covered professionally and continue to cover, SVU has a very special place in my heart," he says, explaining that it's the characters' remarkable depth that's kept the audience around for so many years. "People flock to Hargitay. You can see it on Twitter. When I'm tweeting about an episode, there are so many people with her face as their icon or variations of her name as their handles. It's one of the most passionate fan bases I've ever seen."

When Will It End?

So, how long will SVU continue to air? Hargitay doesn't want to jump the gun, but she sees it moving forward. "I think that one of the fundamental rules in track and field is that you keep your eyes in your own lane, so I'm not looking to my left or my right to see who we're passing or not passing," she says. "But since you asked, I don't see any reason why we won't keep putting out episodes."

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Jean Bentley

Jean Bentley is an entertainment reporter who has written about television for Marie Claire, E! News, Mashable, Nerdist, MTV, Entertainment Weekly, and many more. She loves Law & Order: SVU so much that her cat is named Olivia Benson (before Taylor Swift, thankyouverymuch).