Law & Order: SVU has been around for 23 seasons, and its 24th season began in September 2022. The show has been around for this long because of its fresh material and fantastic characters. Sadly, some of the cases Olivia Benson investigates in the popular series are based on real-life cases and people. A real controversial experiment inspired Robin Williams‘ SVU episode.
Robin Williams’ ‘SVU’ episode dealt with obedience
“Authority” is the 17th episode of Season 9 of Law & Order: SVU, according to Law & Order fandom. The episode begins with a fast food restaurant worker filing a complaint against the police after they asked her employer to strip-search her. The manager claimed he received a tip from the police that the employee was stealing from the business.
It’s soon established that the call was a hoax, with the detectives connecting it to an audio engineer named Merritt Rook. Rook takes great pleasure in flouting rules and opposing authority. He uses his skills to create a fake alibi but is found out.
He is charged with conspiracy to commit sexual assault but is determined not guilty. Rook uses his court win and media attention to convince the public to try to be more discerning of authority. He organizes protests and uses the chance to abduct Olivia Benson, threatening that he will detonate a bomb if she fails to cooperate.
Elliot Stabler attempts to learn about Rook to find out where he is keeping Benson. Stabler learns about Rook’s tragic past and that his wife died in childbirth thanks to the doctor’s negligence. Stabler finds Benson and Rook in a recording studio, where Rook informs the detective that his partner’s seat is connected to a voltage generator.
He also warns Stabler against attempting to save Benson as he has rigged the booth with explosives. Rook forces Stabler to watch as he inflicts pain on Benson but later reveals that Benson is fine and there are no explosives. Rook causes an explosion and escapes, but the two detectives fail to catch up to him, assuming the villain drowned in the river.
‘Authority’ is based on a bizarre real-life experiment
During the booth scene of “Authority,” Merrit Rook tries to get Elliot Stabler to inflict pain on his partner through the Milgram experiment. The Milgram experiment was a social psychology experiment that measured the willingness of participants to obey an authority figure even when they are instructed to do something that goes against their conscience.
The participants in the study were led to believe that they were participating in an unrelated experiment and were asked to administer electric shocks to a “learner.” The shocks increased gradually to levels that would have been deadly had they been real.
Through the experiment, it was deduced that many subjects would fully obey instructions, although reluctantly. The study was conducted in 1961 by psychologist Stanley Milgram of Yale University and featured men aged 20 to 50 from different occupations.
Milgram wanted to determine how far people would go when obeying instructions if the instructions required harming other people. He began the study a few months after Adolf Eichmann, a German Nazi war criminal, was tried for his crimes.
Other times ‘Law & Order: SVU’ drew on real cases
One SVU premise comes from a true crime story that happened in 1986, involving Robert Chambers strangling Jennifer Levin. It was later established that Levin and Chambers were romantically involved, and the defendant claimed throughout his trial that the incident was “rough sex” gone wrong.
Several episodes of the show have taken from real-life criminal figures, including an episode where several young girls got assaulted by a millionaire á la Jeffrey Epstein. Other celebrities who’ve inspired SVU episodes include Chris Brown, Ray Rice, Michael Jackson, and Anna Nicole Smith.