Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, NBC)

When Law & Order: Special Victims Unit premiered on September 20, 1999, reviews took issue with the righteousness of its lead characters Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliott Stabler (Christopher Meloni), and its dark subject matter. “I don’t think we need an entire show dedicated to the subject matter,” Rosie O’Donnell said in 1999.

But despite its early reputation as Law & Order’s scandalous sibling, the show has surpassed the original in longevity. While the former focused dryly on complex court cases and crimes not limited to homicide, SVU was much more unpredictable and faster-paced, focusing specifically on rape, abuse, and murder cases. It’s been 20 years since Law & Order: SVU introduced a generation to its heinous crimes and started a conversation about sexual violence with millions of viewers.

But the show’s appeal was not just its righteous moralism, it was also its pulpy twists and crazy characters. Behind those stories was a team of writers, directors, and researchers, who combed through medical journals and news articles looking for stories that reflected the moment and predicted the future—from issues concerning consent to the dangerous implications of virtual worlds. Jezebel spoke with the brains behind five of the show’s wildest episodes about how it all came together.


Heated Debates Over Sexual Assault

Episode: “Ridicule” (2001)

In “Ridicule,” a woman is found dead by assumed auto-erotic asphyxiation, but her murder leads detectives to a male stripper (Peter Starrett) who claims he was raped by the victim and her two wealthy, high-powered female friends (Paige Turco and Diane Neal). The case pits Benson and Stabler against one another, as the latter believes men can’t actually be raped, and Benson insists they can. Even ADA Alexandra Cabot (Stephanie March) faces criticism for taking on such an ambitious case. In a show that often focused on crimes against women and children, the male victim in “Ridicule” was a rarity, and the divide it created in the squad exemplified Law & Order SVU’s approach to turning episodes into living room ready debates.

Neal Baer (showrunner): We didn’t do things to be controversial. We did things to explore issues that people weren’t talking about. I was always looking for the ethical issue. I read an article about a guy in a neurology journal who became a pedophile at age 50 and that was weird. It turned out he had a tumor and when they removed the tumor, he lost his proclivity for child pornography. Then he started feeling it again and his tumor grew back, so this raised questions. I would assign that to one of the writers I thought would jibe with that kind of story. They would do an outline on their board, and they would pitch to me. It wasn’t just something general; every scene was on their whiteboards in their office.

Judith McCreary (writer): I was usually drawn to the darker stories, the paradoxes inherent in contradictions of law. I am not a lawyer, but I desperately wanted to be one if only in my own mind. I decided to write “Ridicule” in response to something a [consulting] psychologist said about sexual assault victims who suffer further indignity because they climaxed during their attacks.]

Amanda Green (technical advisor, producer, and writer): Some writers loved the most Gothic, outlandish, “whoa, can that happen?” kind of story. Others were really keyed in on this really cool legal thing [that] happened, or the sort of medical, ethical, sociological thing. I know I got the question over and over and over in these early days from the network and studio heads going: “How many stories can you tell about rape?” There was a sense that the show was sort of salacious and exploitative.

Judith McCreary: I argued with my fellow writers, as well as sexual assault counselors, about male victims, especially male victims whose perps were female. I kept hearing words like “rare” or “non-existent.” I wondered how they could think women couldn’t be perps when studies have shown that not only can we be just as abhorrent as men, but more feral. Also, it frustrated me the rape 1 statute categorically states penetration as the deciding act to first-degree rape. The penal code definitions can make you crazy, and the lack of effort to address the code can make you think no one actually cares about real justice or the law at all.

Amanda Green: The wonderful thing about having the characters of Benson and Stabler to play with and to write for is that they came from, really, two different lenses on the same subject. Olivia Benson’s character was first and foremost the wish-fulfillment of every victim, someone who believes you, who you can trust, who has empathy and a heart the size of Chicago. Over and over, women told us in real life, “Why wasn’t that my detective when I was raped?” On the other hand, Elliot Stabler was a man filled with rage at what primarily men were doing to women. In “Ridicule,” we were talking about the inverse of that.

Judy McCreary: Dick Wolf’s edict when writing debates for characters was always that all parties had to be right. When seen from that point of view, then their arguments were always great and pointed because they had equal weight.

Diane Neal (actor who later played ADA Casey Novak, rapist in “Ridicule”): The whole nature of the real SVU is crimes against children, crimes against women, sexual abuse and so on, and men always seemed kind of left out. There were a few lines [in the episode] where people were like, oh you should be lucky, which is not the right way to look at any kind of sexual assault. It’s wild because it seems like a million years ago, but also nothing has changed.

Amanda Green: In 1999, the way we talked about sexual assault, about who the perpetrators are, about who the victims are, was radically different from the way the dialogue goes today.

Peter Starrett (actor who played Peter Smith, victim): It’s smart because it flips the perspective for men. There was a line in there, I remember, where somebody said, “Well, how were you raped? You were physically aroused.” [Benson] says something to the effect of: Arousal doesn’t equal consent. And I think that’s always been brought up with female rape victims—of course, it’s been weaponized against women forever—but people think of it differently when it’s a man.

Tamara Tunie (actor who played Dr. Melinda Warner, medical examiner): At the time, I thought it was very important that the show went into the fact that even though your mind is thinking one thing, your body can physically respond in a way that you’re not agreeing with.

Judy McCreary: [For research], we were encouraged to read the penal code, textbooks and Westlaw for accuracy and verisimilitude. I researched the DSM-3, 4 and 5 to research auto-erotic asphyxia among other mental diseases. I also consulted the Practical Guide to Sexual Homicide Investigation.

Tamara Tunie: I went down to the city morgue for a visit. It was kind of a perfect situation for me, because I grew up in a funeral home, so my comfort with being around people who are deceased was kind of already part of my existence.

David Waldron (background casting): I think it’s just a thrill, playing a dead body, but I really don’t know what the thrill is. When I first started out and people were like, oh my God, I want to play dead body, and I never understood why. I mean, you’re lying on that morgue table and you’re usually in nudity attire, which is attire that looks like you’re nude, under the sheet. You might be in pasties, in a thong, and have all this body makeup on you, laying on a cold metal slab for like five to six hours holding your breath.

Tamara Tunie: I had a medical dictionary standing by that I always consulted. You end up learning about a lot of different, what’s the word I’m looking for, sexual predilections, if you will.

Constantine Makris (director): I’ve done two SVU episodes involving auto-erotic asphyxiation [laughs]. You don’t want to make it overly graphic, but on the other hand you do want to sort of show the audience that this is actually possible.

Stephanie March (actor who played ADA Alexandra Cabot): There is no question in my mind that before the show started, America was more afraid to talk about these kinds of crimes and specifically how they relate to young people and women.

Amanda Green: The primary goal of the writers was always to be accurate and to honor the victims of sexual assault and tell their stories in a way that was both legally and procedurally correct, but also psychologically accurate, because that’s what I did. I was working as a forensic mental health professional splitting my time between the Brooklyn district attorney’s office and the NYPD Brooklyn Sex Crimes Squad. One of the writers was coming to New York and she said, “Can I take you to lunch?” and brought along Mariska Hargitay, who had a million questions. She brought me to the set, and Dick Wolf happened to be there that day. Mariska grabbed me by the arm and dragged me down the hall literally screaming, “Dick, you have to meet the real-life Olivia Benson,” and it changed my life.

Diane Neal: For some reason, everyone remembers me [playing] a rapist. It was one of my very first acting jobs, and I was like 23, and I’m like, really? I got hired to play a businesswoman wearing business suits? I remember we were shooting a scene with Richard Belzer and Ice-T on Fifth Avenue, and I can’t even remember how many takes we did because everyone just yelling, “ICE!” It was great because it took me like 17 takes before I could even say the first word, I was like, oh, I’m not even nervous anymore. One side effect that you never think will happen when you take an acting job, is: you will literally be talking about rape for the rest of your life. Everyone will tell you their story.

Stephanie March: The fact that we were exposed to that material and it was still so difficult and we did it under the most personally luxurious circumstances... it never fails to amaze me that more people don’t just burn out. I mean, it’s very graphic. I made a point of not reading the newspaper whenever I was shooting because it’s too much bad news.


The Campy Rich Kids Get Theirs

Episode: “Mean” (2004)

In “Mean,” a teenage girl is found murdered, with manicure scissors and blonde hair-dye at the scene. As the episode snakes through potential male victims, the murderers end up being her rich, preppy friend clique led by queen bee Brittany (Kelli Garner). They’re uncovered by ADA Casey Novak (Diane Neal) after she recognizes the victim’s birthstone on one of the girls in a dramatic courtroom reveal, which descends into an argument over who gets to keep the dead girl’s Prada purse. The episode’s crazy, Legally Blonde-level twist and pillory of wealthy Manhattan teenagers, a hallmark of some of SVU’s best episodes, makes it a campy classic.

Michele Fazekas (writer): This really was based on a true story about this girl named Shanda Sharer. She was like 12 years old, and her friend group of all teenage girls tortured and killed her. The details are so horrifying. We had been on the show for a while, but for whatever reason, while researching this episode, I have such a vivid memory of looking up at [my writing partner] Tara Butters and saying, “I cannot do this show anymore.” We ended up staying for two more years.

Tara Butters (writer): One of the things I like about “Mean” is that you walk away from the episode feeling unsatisfied because ultimately…

Michele Fazekas: Everyone loses.

Tara Butters: Yes, and that was intentional, versus other episodes where you get the guy and you feel like things are kind of wrapped up. We wanted this one to have a very different feel.

Michele Fazekas: When Neal came over, he said, “Let’s not make it about whatever lascivious sex crime we can come up with. Let’s make it about something bigger than itself.” For instance, this episode was about bullying and about how girls bully and about how schools deal with bullies.

Neal Baer: I thought [Butters and Fazekas] would love this because there was all this talk about mean girls and bullying. They knew that culture so well, and so I think that’s why it sings. I love when they’re screaming at each other. “My Prada purse!” It’s like, oh God, help me.

Tara Butters: That was the great thing about the show is that you could have episodes that were pure popcorn, and then you would have episodes that were issue-oriented and it all felt like it worked.

Tamara Tunie: Sometimes I’d get [Fazekas and Butters’s] scripts and I’d be like, oh my god, these lovely young ladies are writing this crazy stuff?

Diane Neal: I’d been working nonstop since doing “Ridicule,” and then I got a call for the new ADA. I just remember it being the worst audition. I was like, well that’s not happening. And I was wearing, as you do when you’re young, way too high heels. I remember just taking my shoes off and walking back home to my place in Chelsea barefoot just like, whatever man. Then, all of a sudden, I got a call going, “Do you want the job?”

Neal Baer: We liked her so much we said, to hell with it. I named all the ADAs after Kim Novak; there’s Casey Novak, there’s Mikka Von, there’s Jo Marlowe which is a [reference] to an obscure movie she did. We just thought [Diane Neal] was a really strong actor.

Diane Neal: I will never forget “Mean.” I graduated from high school very early and pretty much nobody talked to me unless they wanted their homework done. I remember reading that, I was like, yeah, a bunch of like snotty high school girls killing one of their friends? God, I never want to be a teenager again ever, ever, ever.

Kelli Garner (actor who played Brittany): I think they were going for a blonde, bitchy “valley girl” type. I went to school in Thousand Oaks, which like any other high school, was not short of mean girls. It was weird being in high school and having some of my work come out, like Larry Clark’s film Bully. It just led to more bullying for me, girls definitely didn’t like that. I will still have people come up to me and say, you’re the “mean” girl.

Neal Baer: With [rich kids], there’s so much getting away with murder, literally. We went from the bowels of the subway to the penthouse of Trump Tower, exploring all the levels of social class.

Amanda Green: Dick Wolf always said the best episodes of Law & Order took you from the penthouse to the gutter. You only have to look at the case of Jeffrey Epstein to know that judgment, both social and legal, around sexual assault, looks very different when applied to wealthy white men of privilege and their children, be they girls or boys.

Michele Fazekas: Our cops are kind of working-class people who are just trying to find the truth and trying to fight the good fight, and there’s something satisfying about taking down a villain who thinks he or she is above the law and can buy their way out of trouble.

Diane Neal: We have lots of episodes where the rich kids go down and then we have a lot of ones where the rich kids get away, and I always think that those are more real. In New York, we have such a wealth gap; we’ve got the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. Look at our President, right? Everyone that’s been [in New York City] forever knows Trump [didn’t] pay his contractors. He’s a scam artist. In the episodes, we get to take down the rich guys and see justice served. It’s a bit of living vicariously through television.

Michelle Fazekas: It’s hard writing courtroom dramas to have the sudden courtroom confession. It can feel fake or ridiculous, and I think the [birth stone reveal] made Novak smart.

Diane Neal: One of the really difficult things about SVU was there was no improvisation whatsoever, especially when you’re using legal dialogue. I couldn’t even add an “s” to the end of a word [because] it had already been to the legal department of NBC and approved.

Michelle Fazekas: NBC network has a whole Broadcast Standards and Practices department, so they’ll get the script and they will give it their BS&P report that says, “On this page, make sure we don’t see too much blood,” or something. Then, they’ll watch the cut, and they will say, “This is too much.” I will say that very rarely would we ever get the network saying, “This is too much.” Tara and I were on The X-Files, where we met as assistants, and The X-Files got waaayyy more notes. [Laughs]

Diane Neal: Even things like, [in court], in real life, I would hold up a picture of the dead kid, I would make [the jury] look at it! They’d be like, “Yeah, we can’t do that.” So trying to work within the parameters of what’s written and still make it interesting, a lot of that was keeping the jury awake.

One of my favorite things in the world to do [was] for people playing anyone on the stand. People are yelling and screaming or eating hot dogs, and suddenly it’s like, now, talk about your rape, action! It’s hard to get into it. Some people would be like, “Yeah, I really need help.” And then off-camera, I’d be like [disgusted]. “You’re a fucking terrible mother.” Or, “Your kids hate you.” When you have like little kids on the stand, I’d be like, “What are you having trouble with these days?” They’d say, “Well, I’m really bad at dodgeball.” I’d say, “Game on. [Yells] YOU SUCK AT DODGEBALL!


Uncovering the Horrors of a New Internet

Episode: “Avatar” (2007)

Some of SVU’s craziest episodes are built around an expanding internet, often heavily fictionalized to avoid naming specific sites. As the show has aged, its panicked internet references, from “Face Union” to “Mysite,” have grown even more dated. Case in point: the absolutely batshit “Avatar,” which begins with a red herring crime of “sexsomnia,” but then turns to a woman active on a Second Life-type virtual reality game named “Another Youniverse.” She’s kidnapped by pedophile Julian Cooper (Kevin Tighe), who reminds him of a former victim. At the end of the episode, his former teenage victim, Lauren Molby, is revealed to be alive and waiting for him (Florencia Lozano), but he rejects her because she’s “gotten so old.”

Paul Grellong (writer): I must have come across some article about Second Life, maybe in Wired, in 2006. I just remember thinking that it felt like the right thing to explore: a crime that could straddle both the real and the virtual world. You know this was being figured out in 2006 and 2007. Twitter was around, but I certainly wasn’t on it. Every writer was engaged in their own research trying to find areas that were of interest to them, and when I came across Second Life and the idea that there was a place where people could pretend to be someone else and do anything, it seemed like something that was going to be quickly exploited.

Neal Baer: There was so much tech. The mothership Law & Order was ripped from the headlines, but [I’d say] the headlines were ripped from us. We talked to opinion leaders and so many consultants and scientists all the time, we were ahead of the curve in terms of what was coming out.

Florencia Lozano (actor who played Lauren Molby): I was like, what’s an avatar? [Laughs] I’m sort of a Luddite, so I was like, what is this world?

Paul Grellong: Sometimes you’re looking for a hook or a way to have the story take a big turn away from where it initially begins. [Sexsomnia] was the kind of thing that seemed medically plausible, legally thorny, and something that was worth shedding a light on that could also open a door into the rest of the episode by putting it near the orbit of the main characters involved.

Peter Leto (director): The classic misdirect, the red herring, makes for a great episode. That’s the kind of SVU signature that was adopted to a certain degree from the mothership.

Kevin Tighe (actor who played Julian Cooper): The script felt like it was ahead of its time, in terms of technology. At the same time, there was a guy [in the news] who was arrested for kidnapping a little girl. [The news] showed pictures of him for a couple of days; once they found him he looked like an old, harmless guy. He looked like he wouldn’t hurt a fly. That kind of [stuck] with me, in terms of where I just decided to take this [character]. With characters that are considered bad or evil, I’m interested in the goodness of who they are.

Paul Grellong: The ending is bananas! I mean, she’s been alive this whole time, and then she comes down to the city and is face-to-face with this man. I think one of the things that makes the ending compelling is that the story itself is crazy. The twist is really big, but both the actors bring this chilling humanity to the performances. As wild as the scenario is, they’re grounded. [The plan] very early on was that she would be alive, but it wasn’t until a little bit later in the breaking of the episode that we decided she would come confront him.

Florencia Lozano: I had just broken up with my boyfriend of 10 years, and when I read the part it really resonated with me. There’s that scene where [my character] gets to see the man that I’m in love with and I realize that everything I thought I knew wasn’t true. He says to me, “You’ve gotten so old,” and I realize oh my god, he has been kidnapping these women and killing them, everything was false. I just felt like I could use a lot of my life experience and apply it to that particular moment.

Kevin Tighe: He’s so frightened by [her], it ends on a note of vulnerability, but he’s kind of a smart-ass a little bit. That kind of reversal is wonderful to play because she made me want to cry, and she was crying.

Florencia Lozano: I remember doing research into girls who had been similarly kidnapped by men and how horrifying and heartbreaking it was. I read about this girl that was kept in like a coffin basically underneath this guy’s bed. It was so deeply horrifying for me that I felt a real responsibility as an actor to really go there and bring this.

Paul Grellong: It was unforgettable, really, her performance in that scene. Where she has performed was really pretty amazing and powerful. It was one of those times on set, and I’ve been on a lot of them, and it’s not always like this. You have 150 people standing around doing their job, and it brought everybody to silence. It was pin-drop quiet on the set.

We’ve seen, only more so, every year, the dangers inherent in online technologies where people can pretend to be someone or something that they’re not. Obviously, that’s a long way from the digital sex clubs of “Another Youniverse,” but I do think the episode holds up.


Turning Real Issues Into Television

Episode: “Undercover” (2008)

In the tense “Undercover,” Benson goes undercover in a women’s prison after discovering that a corrections officer there has been raping women. While she and Fin (Ice-T) are undercover, Benson is nearly sexually assaulted by the officer she’s trying to arrest. The dark, heavily researched episode was just one example of the show’s commitment to turning real issues into television.

Mark Goffman (writer): I had some experience in the criminal justice system and went to the Kennedy School of Government. I was looking around for a story and this issue was something that had stuck with me, learning about women in prison and the idea that more than half of the criminal corrections officers were male, and the population of a lot of the women in prison was something like more than half were serving for non-violent crimes; and among that population, many had addiction issues. I thought just what a horrific cocktail of a situation, to continue that cycle of abuse in prison from the C.O.s without any impunity because of this population. When I was in New York, I got to visit a women’s prison, and in speaking with some of the inmates there and some of the officers, the story really started to crystallize. I really dug into the research.

Brian Fagan (researcher): We [researched] everything thoroughly. I had a list of contacts in all areas: cops, detectives, lawyers, doctors, court reporters. I even had the L.A. coroner’s personal cell phone number. I spent my days reading all of the science, legal and medical journals, and combing the internet for anything that could be used on the show. Once I had a ton of material, Neal would have me create a binder for the writers to look through. They were about 250 to 500 pages and were divided into categories: sex crimes, medicine, legal, forensics, etcetera.

For example, there was an article about a single man in the U.S. who adopted a seven-year-old Russian girl. But when she arrived, she found there was only one bed in the man’s house, and she was expected to sleep with him, which, as you can imagine, led to abuse. For a binder like that, I would easily find 50 other stories related to adoptions for the sake of abuse, Russian wives, human trafficking. Many elements from that single binder could be combined to create part of an episode. What was taxing wasn’t the hours, it was the incredibly dark worlds that I had to research. Although I loved my job, it gave me great anxiety that I haven’t been able to shake to this day. There’s just so much darkness in the world that we try not to pay attention to. But it also provides a catharsis for the viewer; at least in the show, they get the bad guy, even though that’s not always possible in real life.

Goffman: Neal and I debated for a while over whether we were going to have to [include] the attempted rape. I wanted [Benson] to go undercover because I thought there’s no way to fully see and understand this problem unless you experience it. When I decided to write the scene of the attempted rape, we just said, “Well, you know we’re going to have to go as close as possible.” I still have nightmares watching Mariska’s performance, it’s so haunting and intense.

Neal Baer: It was really about Benson facing her own demons, too. It was always about, for me, how do you get Benson to do that? Mariska loved those intense shows.

Goffman: I do remember that at the script level, the network was somewhat nervous that it might be too intense and it might, you know, go too far. Neal and Dick and everyone just said, “Nope, this is the story we need to do.” And then even after we shot it, there was still a lot of concern, like maybe we needed to dial it back in the editing, and they didn’t.

Neal Baer: It was intense, and there was pushback at times after a show aired the first time and [over] whether it would air in repeats, like the teen access to abortion in an episode called “Rockabye.” That was controversial. But [“Undercover”], that’s just not true.

Goffman: I loved making these [episodes] authentic. We fictionalized the twists and the characters, but I think there’s a rich history on the show of authenticity and taking the essence of true stories and capturing them in a way that’s entertaining and really powerful on-screen.


The Craziest Twists and Turns On T.V.

Episode: “Zebras” (2009)

In “Zebras,” annoying CSU technician Dale Stuckey (Noel Fisher) is revealed to be a serial killer, doctoring evidence to cover up his crimes and dramatically murdering beloved forensics technician and detective Ryan O’Halloran (Mike Doyle). Stuckey then kidnaps Stabler, who Benson has to rescue by briefly seducing Stuckey in the process. At the end of the episode, Benson reveals that she knew her partner was in peril because Stuckey said they just “ducked out to get sushi.” “You and raw fish?” she says, while carrying out a stabbed Stabler.

Daniel Truly (writer): I’m not like super-versed in law, and courtroom scenes can be kind of boring to me, so I always tried to write very entertaining episodes. Neal was very much in charge of like, okay, so we had a downer, let’s do an upper. We had a few that were lighter, [so it was like], let’s do something really intense. With “Zebras,” there were a lot of people who think I ruined the show because I created [Dale] Stuckey. I made the mistake of going online and reading reader comments and people were like, who the fuck is this guy?! But it was all part of a plan to kill Mike Doyle at the end of the season. You can’t kill Chris or Mariska, so is there a fan favorite that people won’t see coming?

Mike Doyle (actor who played Ryan O’Halloran): I like to think that I often solved the crimes without getting the credit [laughs], but I let Chris and Mariska do it. You know, I learned so many ways that I could get away with a crime and so many things not to do, like don’t use bleach because O’Halloran will find it! [Laughs]. I think [Neil] wanted to send me off with a really stellar demise. I went out with a bang.

Neal Baer: Everybody loved that character so much. I was pretty sure I knew I was going to be leaving the show and I killed off the nun, Sister Peg. I took everybody! [Laughs] I just felt like it was unexpected, but it felt real. [Doyle] was like, oh, not again, because he’s been killed before on shows.

Noel Fisher (actor who played Dale Stuckey): The production kind of walked me through the arc, this character who starts out as just a nuisance and who turns into something substantially darker and more sinister. I knew that he was going to go off the deep end and become murderous, but they told me nothing about what that would entail. When [I got the “Zebras” script], I was shocked. Up until that point he had really been irritating, and it was a big jump.

Peter Leto: We kept it a secret as much as we could at the time. Everybody just kept their mouth shut at the end of the day. That’s all it came down to.

Amanda Green: The end of Mike Doyle’s character was incredibly sad because all of the cast has been with us on a journey for a really long time. You’re firing an actor when you kill them off. I remember, being on set the night we shot his death scene [when] we were testing the vest so that he could be stabbed and have the right amount of blood flow, going, oh god, this sucks.

Mike Doyle: I had this rig on me that went around my chest, and they cut a hole through the shirt so that the half-knife, rigged on the chest plate, would just sit there. I was doused in blood in between takes, and at lunch, they would wrap me in cellophane to keep the blood wet. You can only really approximate what it’s like to be stabbed [laughs] from what you may see in other movies or other television shows, so you hope you get it right. The latter part of that scene was laying there while everybody else was doing their thing.

Daniel Truly: We had to kill or hurt a number of people in interesting ways. I had read about this thing called detergent suicide. We have great researchers on this who produced these big books of research articles, medical interventions.

Noel Fisher: The final scene with Mariska and Chris was so crazy. I remember, from shooting, that when I stabbed Christopher, he had a plank of wood under his shirt with fake blood packs on that. So I actually had to stab it and then the blood pack would burst and you’d get some good movie magic. But I remember being totally terrified because the place that I had to stab him was kind of near the corner of the wood plank. You know I’m a young actor, I thought, this can’t miss. [Laughs] Let’s just not stab Christopher Meloni, okay? I’ve been a Law & Order fan since I was a kid, I grew up watching the original Law & Order, and I’ve never seen an episode like “Zebras” where they were so close to losing somebody, a main character, in that way.

Daniel Truly: When Chris left the show, we were very hopeful that we would be allowed to kill him. I always thought that he should have been shot or something and he professes his love to [Olivia] as he dies. That’s how their story should have ended. But we weren’t allowed to kill him because, you know, maybe he’ll come back at the end of Season... 38. [Sarcastically] You know, he’ll be in a nursing home and Mariska will be in the next room.

Neal Baer: I was always playing with [Elliot and Olivia’s] relationship. The relationship goes beyond professional obviously, but it was never sexual, or it was never realized. Even in the episode about the animals brought in illegally, Stabler’s undercover so he has to pretend that she’s his girlfriend. Of course, the fans went cuckoo over it. If [Olivia and Elliott] got together? We’re done, goodbye. I got them close! But I was never going to have them in bed together.

When I brought Stephanie March back after she had been “blown up” but she was really undercover, I started reading the lesbian fanfiction. I saw like, oh my god, Benson put her overnight bag on the bed next to step next to Cabot’s bed, so then I did more of that. I wanted to fulfill the lesbian audience’s fanfiction fantasy.

Stephanie March: When Mariska and I tapped into what was happening, we just got such a kick out of it. [Laughs] We kept trying to slip it in, in ways that we thought the editors would edit out, sort of our joke for the production. We would try and touch each other’s hand or something and see if it would make it into the show. It never did. When I went back to shoot the last season, at one point she said, “Should we just kiss and see if they keep it in?”

Daniel Truly: With [the sushi line], we needed a way for [Benson] to know that something was up.

Neal Baer: We were always coming up with those kinds of crazy lines, but because that was sort of a trademark of Benson.

Amanda Green: The [humor] in the show was an evolution. If you go back and watch some of those early episodes, you’ll see that there used to be an “A story” and a “B story.” The A story would be dark and painful, about a sexually motivated homicide or assault, and then the later B story would be filled with a lot of one-liners. I think really [early] on in Season 1, there was a course correction.

Peter Leto: We have to have a little levity. The stories are so dark and heartbreaking that if we don’t have a little lightness here and there—I think the importance of the really heavy moments will lose their impact if everything is treated with the same kind of weight.

Amanda Green: Everybody said, “You are going to run out of stories,” and I used to just laugh. It was never the rape of the week or the murder of the week; it was about people and issues and moral dilemmas and medical, legal, and ethical questions. I think when people would trivialize it, at first they were missing the point. On SVU, crime was a door to a world, and those worlds were unique.

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Hazel Cills

Pop Culture Reporter, Jezebel