Law & Order: SVU is currently on hiatus ahead of Season 24, and the episode count as of the end of Season 23 is at well over 500. Few shows are able to run for more than two decades with the same leading lady from the very beginning, but it has been going strong with Mariska Hargitay as Olivia Benson since 1999. Yet, I recently found myself wondering: did the Law & Order: SVU pilot episode truly get the show off to a strong start, or am I blinded by nostalgia for the original squad?
I have fond memories of the early days, but it was still a long time ago that I was checking seasons of SVU out of the library in pre-streaming days to stay on top of the series. So, while on a break between covering new seasons of SVU on NBC, I rewatched the 1999 pilot episode, and I have thoughts.
Benson And Stabler Are Iconic For A Reason
I was as excited as any SVU fan when the news broke that Stabler was returning to reunite with his former partner (even though I was firmly on Team Benson), and rewatching the pilot proved that they were set up to become iconic from literally the very beginning. The first line of the series is “Sex crimes!” followed by “Olivia Benson” and “Elliot Stabler” as they arrived at the first crime scene and introduced themselves as partners. A legendary TV partnership was born right away in the pilot, with Mariska Hargitay and Chris Meloni crushing it from the start.
Of course, their pilot dynamic is very different from what it becomes. Benson is very much the junior detective, with Stabler having more experience and some doubt about her objectivity when their murder victim was a war criminal rapist. Still, she stood her ground, and he had her back. They were set up as the duo at the center of the series back in the 1999 pilot, and fans are still dying for more of Benson and Stabler more than 20 years and one spinoff later. Talk about iconic!
Mariska Hargitay's Benson Was Always The Star
As much as the SVU pilot set up both Benson and Stabler as the center of the series, and Chris Meloni was top-billed ahead of Mariska Hargitay, I realized with the rewatch that Benson really has been the star all along. She was set up as relatable with her struggles in investigating a truly brutal case, and also got the most intriguing backstory with the early reveal that she was the product of her mother’s rape.
In contrast, Stabler’s backstory beyond having kids and a wife wouldn’t be expanded on until later in the season. Looking back from 2022, it feels like we were shown that Mariska Hargitay is the star in the pilot, and Benson's story is still unfolding decades later. Considering that she's the face of the Law & Order franchise at 23 seasons and counting, and even won an Emmy for her work, I'd say it was a good choice!
The Benson/Stabler/Kathy Triangle Started Early
Whether you think that Benson unintentionally caused problems in the Stabler marriage simply because she was Elliot’s partner in the job that demanded most of his waking hours, or because Kathy suspected that her husband and his partner had romantic feelings for each other, I think it’s safe to say that there was a triangle involving the three of them. Whether that was professional or romantic is up for debate; what is clear in the pilot is that SVU clued us in on the complications from the very beginning.
Actress Isabel Gillies (who had a message for fans back in 2021) briefly appeared when Kathy and Stabler had a parent/teacher conference, but that conference was interrupted when Stabler got a call from Benson that distracted him from the whole reason they were there. To his credit, he wasn’t in deep enough at this point that he rushed off to join his partner and left Kathy, but the seeds for triangle were planted very early on.
Cragen Had No Idea What He Was In For
Cragen didn't buy what Benson and Stabler were trying to sell to get a lighter plea deal for the woman who killed her rapist, but they were a united front. Benson came close to admitting what they’d done by saying “I think that we did the one thing that’s gonna allow me to sleep tonight.” Cragen ended the conversation by telling Olivia that “You just used your get-out-of-jail-free card” and “there’s only one in the pack.”
Now, SVU is not a comedy, but I’ll admit that I laughed out loud when poor Cragen said that in front of Benson and Stabler. If only he knew how often these two were going to bend the rules and need get-out-of-jail-free cards in future seasons! They won't make his job easy in the years following the pilot, but he had no idea at the time.
I Don't Miss Stabler As Much As I Expected
My SVU fandom was 100% born during the Benson/Stabler era, so I expected a wave of nostalgia from rewatching the pilot that would make me desperately miss having Stabler around on a regular basis. But, comparing the beginning of Season 1 to the end of Season 23 just makes me appreciate Olivia Benson’s journey and her growth from the junior detective in Special Victims into the captain leading the unit.
It’s hard to imagine that Benson would be where she is now if SVU hadn’t had to find a new trajectory for the character after Chris Meloni’s abrupt departure as Stabler and end of them as an unbreakable partnership. The Benson/Stabler era will always be iconic, but the pilot rewatch helped me realize that it’s okay that SVU can never fully get back to that. Plus, I can always look forward to the SVU/Organized Crime crossovers that reunite the former partners!
It Was A Really Good Pilot
All in all, this was just a good episode of television, and that’s not always the case for pilots. Shows often find the weak spots in their pilots and make big changes or cuts as the series continues, but SVU nailed what works from the beginning. The case was complex and dark, and there was just enough focus on character that it didn’t feel like the proceedings would be purely episodic. SVU didn't have to find its legs after the pilot; it found the winning formula from the start, and it was a joy to rewatch.
Rewatching Law & Order: SVU's 1999 pilot episode in 2022 had plenty of thoughts going through my head, and I have some additional notes after the blast from the past:
- The opening narration really hasn’t changed since 1999.
- I know this because I speak the opening narration along with every episode of SVU.
- Guest star casting has always been great.
- Despite a mention of Ken Starr and some language that wouldn't make the cut in 2022, it wasn't as dated as I expected.
- Jeffries and Cassidy were fine in the pilot, but I missed Fin.
- I don't miss Stabler as much as I expected, but he's still always welcome back on SVU.
- I love them together, but I have never and will never refer to Benson and Stabler as "Bensler."
If you want to revisit the pilot of Law & Order: SVU (or more of the earlier seasons), you can find the series streaming with a Hulu subscription and/or a Peacock subscription. For some more viewing options during the wait for SVU to return in the fall, check out our 2022 TV premiere schedule.
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Laura turned a lifelong love of television into a valid reason to write and think about TV on a daily basis. She's not a doctor, lawyer, or detective, but watches a lot of them in primetime. CinemaBlend's resident expert and interviewer for One Chicago, the galaxy far, far away, and a variety of other primetime television. Will not time travel and can cite multiple TV shows to explain why. She does, however, want to believe that she can sneak references to The X-Files into daily conversation (and author bios).