‘Law & Order: SVU’: 9 Surprising Facts About the Iconic Criminal Procedural Series

NBC’s successful Law & Order franchise has spawned more than half a dozen spin-off series, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit remains the cornerstone of them all. It’s the only Law & Order spin-off that’s still being produced (although new series, such as Law & Order: Organized Crime, are set to premiere soon), and it has received nearly 100 award nominations over its 22 seasons. Despite being on the air since 1999, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit still has a few secrets up its sleeve that may surprise fans as they await the finale of the current 2020-2021 season of the crime procedural. 

‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’ first aired on September 20, 1999

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The spinoff was the second series in the Law & Order universe, and it is based in the same world and same timeline as the original Law & Order show, which ended in 2010. It follows Captain Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) at the New York City Police Department as she leads an elite force of detectives tasked with solving especially dark crimes that the main show didn’t tend to focus on as much.

The current season, which is the 22nd season in the series, premiered in the winter of 2020 and made TV history. “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is now the longest-running primetime live-action show on television ever, and its star, Hargitay’s Benson, is the longest-running character,” announced Parade magazine. “Now, since it’s been renewed through Season 24, it seems like the fan-favorite will keep on breaking records for a few years yet.”

With nearly 500 episodes under its belt, fans of the show might think they know everything there is to know about the series and its cast. But you just might be surprised. 

Five surprising facts about the show’s production and viewership

Christopher Meloni
Christopher Meloni | Bobby Bank/WireImage

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Not only is Law & Order: Special Victims Unit the longest-running show on TV, but its episode count is also a record-breaker. “By the end of season 22…SVU will have become the fourth scripted primetime American TV series to cross the 500-episode mark—joining the ranks of Lassie, Gunsmoke, and The Simpsons,” reports TV Insider.

Second, the previous season ended abruptly due to the COVID-19 pandemic interrupting filming. Not wanting to let the pandemic affect season 22, Today reports that show has adopted unusual new production strategies, including remote rehearsals via Zoom. 

Mariska Hargitay as Lieutenant Olivia Benson in ‘Law & Order: SVU’ | Virginia Sherwood/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

Third, the series has an unusually large international reach. “SVU has been seen in more than 230 territories around the world, including Turkmenistan, Macau, Vatican City, and Antarctica,” explains TV Insider. 

Fourth, the show often sneaks in clues and Easter eggs for eagle-eyed fans. This sometimes even includes episode titles and show notes. TV Insider notes that for several seasons, including season 21, the producers aligned the length of each episode’s title to the number of the season. For instance, every episode in season 17 had a title that was exactly 17 letters long.

Finally, the show’s dark stories hail all the way back to the show’s origin. “The idea for the spinoff came from the infamous ‘Preppy Murder’ case in 1986,” reports E! Online. The real-life case made headlines globally when a young woman’s body was found in Central Park. The murder was also featured in the original Law & Order series.

Four surprising facts about the show’s actors and history

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To start, the first actor cast for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has a long history with the franchise. “The first actor cast for the ensemble was Dann Florek, who had previously played Captain Don Cragen in the 1988 pilot of the original series,” explains E!.

Second, the show has been running so long that it’s been around for some of history’s biggest moments. For example, the TV drama has outlasted four U.S. presidential administrations and three different Catholic popes.

Third, fans have far more sway than they may realize. For example, detective Fin Tutuola (played by rapper and actor Ice-T) was only supposed to guest star for four episodes. “[He] proved so popular he’s remained on the show since his season two debut,” reports E!.

Finally, the show has left a lasting impact on lead star Hargitay. During the show’s run, she became a rape crisis counselor and created a foundation to assist survivors. “I think the show helped give people permission to talk about [sexual violence] more openly,” she is quoted as saying in TV Insider. “I started getting letters from survivors, many of them saying, ‘Your show saved my life. I’ve never told anyone this before.'”