The Binge-Watch List: Law & Order SVU (Summer Viewing Unit)

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It’s not hard to find TV shows to watch these days. But finding good ones to watch amid all the streaming video services fighting for your attention and your eyeballs? That’s more of a challenge. Every other week, we’ll help you separate a would-be House of Cards from the rest of the pack, as we look at which streaming TV shows are worth your time.

You need a summer project. I’m not trying to be forward, it’s just that you look like you have a little too much spare time—that’s time you could spend binging on one of the longest-running shows in television history.

Have you considered the many benefits of turning to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and its 343 episodes? With proper organization, you could take all that pesky free time and turn it into an encyclopedic knowledge of New York-based actors and places that dead bodies can turn up. At the very least, you’ll never need to worry about whether you’ve seen a particular rerun: You’ll have seen all of them. And that’s something that even the people that make Law & Order: SVU probably can’t say.

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Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) formed Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’s longest-running partnership, thanks to their shared love of squinting at vials.

Luckily for you, every single SVU episode is available on Hulu, just waiting to provide you with a practically infinite amount of things to watch.

What it’s about

First, there was Law & Order, which debuted an almost inconceivable 24 years ago. Its basic gimmick was to divide episodes between “Law” (the police who investigate crimes) and “Order” (the lawyers who prosecute the cases). It spawned a number of spin-offs, including Criminal Intent, Trial by Jury, and LA. But the first and best Law & Order replica was Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which takes the original formula and replicates it pretty much exactly. The twist, such as it is, is that all the cases involve horrific sex crimes. And it features slightly different police and lawyers, although some characters have appeared on both series. It’s possible the actors just showed up on the wrong set, and nobody noticed.

What makes it interesting

It’s obviously a hugely successful show. My theory is that the secret ingredient is the cast, which is surprisingly funny for a show with such bleak subject matter. The cops are basically divided into the Serious Team and the Comic Team. There has been some turnover, but the classic lineup paired Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni (Serious Team) and Richard Belzer with Ice-T (Comic Team). Belzer was an actual stand-up comic. He still is, when he’s not being Detective John Munch on every cop show that will have him. And Ice-T, while still not really an accomplished actor, has an interesting mix of anger and goofiness that makes him an entertaining on-screen presence. Even on the serious side, Meloni has secret comedy chops that you can see in Wet Hot American Summer. There are also various district attorneys, medical examiners, and junior detectives, but they seem very serious to me. And they rotate out more frequently, so other than the occasional Alexandra Cabot or BD Wong, they tend not to make as big an impression as the people who stayed on the show for more than a decade.

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You can tell that Richard Belzer as John Munch (left) and Ice-T as Odafin Tutuola (middle) are the Comic Team on SVU. See? They’re laughing.

And as a bonus, just about every working actor in New York City has appeared on Law & Order or one of its spinoffs, so there’s a never-ending parade of one-line characters you might recognize.

What makes it not so great

As with any Law & Order show, Special Victims Unit can be a little formulaic. In fact, it can be a lot formulaic, to the point where it’s kind of fun to guess which real-world news stories are going to be recycled into plots. But maybe that’s what it takes to turn out 343 episodes and counting. It’s the longest running prime time show on television right now (non-cartoon division), and it’s sixth all-time, even when you count The Simpsons and South Park. You’d find yourself in a rut, too, after doing something a couple hundred times.

What’s the math

Law & Order plus special victims, Alternately, police plus lawyers. Plus special victims. No matter how you look at it, there are going to be some special victims involved.

So how is it?

It works. It’s a very competent show that knows what it’s doing. If you’re in the market for a police procedural with court scenes, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is ready for your eyeballs. And before you know it, hours and hours will have unspooled before your eyes.

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Ice-T is much more serious next to his non-Munch partner, Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish) and Benson's non-Stabler partner, Nick Amaro (Danny Pino).

How many hours should I watch at once?

As much as you have free time. If you’re not already watching something, why not have some SVU going in the background? For the sake of argument, let’s say you can watch about four hours at a stretch. That will knock out four episodes, so you’ll be done in around 85 days. And by a shocking coincidence, if you start right now, that will get you all caught up by mid-September—just in time to watch the 16th season premiere on September 24. At that point, you’ll have to switch from the comfort of the Internet to the confusing world of broadcast television, but that’s the price you have to pay to be current.

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