DVD Review HTF REVIEW: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit - The First Year

Discussion in 'TV on DVD and Blu-ray' started by Jason Perez, Oct 23, 2003.

  1. Jason Perez

    Jason Perez Second Unit

    Jul 6, 2003
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    Law and Order: Special Victims Unit – The First Year

    Studio: Universal

    Year: 1999-2000

    Rated: Not Rated

    Box Set Length: 17 Hours 23 Minutes

    Aspect Ratio: Full-Frame (4:3)

    Subtitles: English (Captioned), French, and Spanish

    Audio: English - Dolby Surround; Spanish – Dolby 2.0

    NOTE: The bonus features for this set are located on Disc Six!!!

    A unique combination of courtroom drama and gritty detective work, the original Law and Order series developed quite a following, and was ultimately successful enough to have a couple of “offspring” much as the highly regarded Crime Scene Investigator (CSI) series did. Although I must say that I was impressed by the few episodes of Law and Order that I caught, grad school never left me much time to religiously watch any particular television series. As such, I never became a hardcore Law and Order fan the way my brothers and some of my friends have.

    After digesting eight episodes (episodes I watched are denoted below by three asterisks) from Law and Order: Special Victims Unit’s inaugural season, and the two bonus featurettes included in this set, I can see why this spin-off has enjoyed four seasons worth of success so far. This series carries forward the intelligence and edginess of Law and Order, but by focusing more on the investigations into the cases handled by the Special Victims Unit, and downplaying the courtroom portion, it has established itself as an entity separate and distinct from its namesake. Interestingly, Executive Producer Ted Kotcheff confesses that this series was originally entitled Sex Crimes, and bore no relationship to the Law and Order franchise. Once the series’ development was placed in the capable hands of Dick Wolf, however, the name was changed (presumably along with some other elements of the show), and the rest, as they say, is history.

    Essentially, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is inspired by the real life division of the New York City Police Department of the same name, which concerns itself with solving crimes of a sexual nature. Consequently, much of the subject matter of Law and Order: SVU is grim, disturbing, and inflammatory. I must say that I detest this type of material, particularly when it involves children, however, this series manages to keep things tasteful, and consistently exhibits much more restraint than some of the other programs that deal with similar subject matter.

    The focal points of Law and Order: SVU are Detectives Elliot Stabler (Chris Meloni) and Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), although other characters, including Detective Munch (Richard Belzer) and Captain Donald Cragen (Dann Florek), who was the original captain in Law and Order, make their presence known in each episode. In general, I found the performances in this series to be a little on the “stiff” side during the eight episodes I watched, with the exception of Hargitay and Florek, both of whom turn in consistently outstanding performances. The other actors, particularly Chris Meloni (whose work I have previously enjoyed) seemed to be searching for the core of their characters, and sometimes unable to convey the appropriate emotion, or add a sense of urgency, to the proceedings.

    In simple terms, I can comfortably state that I think the acting in SVU is not on par with that in the original series, even though I only caught a handful of episodes of Law and Order. On occasion, the writing is also a little suspect (with respect to the characters attitudes), causing the detectives to come across as smug, unlikable a-holes that will immediately badger and attempt to coerce anyone they even remotely suspect of committing the crime they are trying to solve.

    Fortunately, the problems I mention were never severe enough to subvert any one episode, and the series did seem to improve quite a bit with each subsequent episode that I watched. Other than some elements of the casts’ performances (which were still far from terrible), and the occasional issues I had with the writing, this series is very solid, and adds an interesting dynamic to the successful Law and Order formula. Namely, the most intimate and personal aspects of the characters in the Special Victims Unit’s lives are delved into, and the series even takes this a step further by exploring the effect of the characters’ feelings and personal experiences on the way they approach their cases. To be honest, I had never seen an episode in this series before receiving this set, yet I could not help but feel that Law and Order: Special Victims Unit already had the polish and swagger of a series that has been on the air for several years by its eleventh episode.

    The following is a brief description of each episode included in this box set (information obtained from Universal’s press release):

    *** “PAYBACK” - (Episode 1-1) Airdate 9/20/1999
    Detectives Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson investigate the murder and dismemberment of a cab driver.

    “A SINGLE LIFE” - (Episode 1-2) Airdate 9/27/1999
    The case of a woman who fell to her death wearing only a slip leads the detectives to her psychiatrist, a TV anchorman, and the dead woman’s estranged father.

    *** “OR JUST LOOK LIKE ONE” - (Episode 1-3) Airdate 10/4/1999
    Stabler and Benson investigate a case involving a beaten teen model who gets dumped in front of a hospital.

    “HYSTERIA” - (Episode 1-4) Airdate 10/11/1999
    Stabler and Benson investigate the murder of a young woman mistaken for a prostitute.

    “WANDERLUST” - (Episode 1-5) Airdate 10/18/1999
    After a travel writer is found murdered, the investigation involves his landlady, her teen daughter, and the woman’s beau.

    *** “SOPHMORE JINX” - (Episode 1-6) Airdate 10/25/1999
    Benson and Stabler suspect a pair of college basketball players of murdering a female student, but officials don’t want to draw negative attention to the school.

    “UNCIVILIZED” - (Episode 1-7) Airdate 11/15/1999
    The murder of an 8-year-old boy leads to a case involving the rights of a convicted child molester who has served his sentence and returned to society.

    “STALKED” - (Episode 1-8) Airdate 11/22/1999
    A killing leads to a case in which the murderer is someone who stalks his victims, and Stabler fears that a combative Benson is the next target.

    “STOCKS & BONDAGE” - (Episode 1-9) Airdate 11/29/1999
    The investigation into the killing of a Wall Street stock analyst involves illicit financial dealings and sadomasochism.

    “CLOSURE” - (Episode 1-10) Airdate 1/7/2000
    A traumatized sexual assault victim cannot help the detectives identify the prime suspect, because the victim is having trouble dealing with the aftermath of the crime.

    *** “BAD BLOOD” - (Episode 1-11) Airdate 1/14/2000
    Stabler and Benson hunt for the killer of a gay man whose father heads a conservative watchdog group. Elsewhere, Munch looks for Benson’s biological father.

    “RUSSIAN LOVE POEM” - (Episode 1-12) Airdate 1/21/2000
    The investigation of a multimillionaire’s killing involves bisexual infidelities and a number of Russians.

    “DISROBED” - (Episode 1-13) Airdate 2/4/2000
    The shooting death of a sleazy judge who abused the criminal justice system involves blackmail, sexual favors, and an inmate’s wife, who was a battered spouse.

    “LIMITATIONS” - (Episode 1-14) Airdate 2/11/2000
    Faced with the expiration of a statute of limitations, the staff tries to locate a rapist involved in three assaults that occurred five years earlier.

    “ENTITLED, PART 1” - (Episode 1-15) Airdate 2/18/2000
    The murder of a salesman, an alleged sexual predator, leads the detectives to a politically influential family, then to a suspect who eluded Briscoe and his former partner, Mike Logan, six years ago.

    *** “THE THIRD GUY” - (Episode 1-16) Airdate 2/25/2000
    After two teens are caught in connection with an assault and robbery of an elderly woman, it becomes apparent that someone else committed the attack.

    “MISLEADER” - (Episode 1-17) Airdate 3/31/2000
    When the pregnant daughter-in-law of a prominent religious leader is found slain in a hotel room, it is discovered that she may have been having an affair.

    *** “CHAT ROOM” - (Episode 1-18) Airdate 4/14/2000
    A teenage girl’s claim that a man who befriended her on the Internet assaulted her leads to a sting operation involving pedophilia.

    “CONTACT” - (Episode 1-19) Airdate 4/28/2000
    A forensic psychologist is called in to help apprehend a serial rapist who preys on women in the subway.

    *** “REMORSE” - (Episode 1-20) Airdate 5/5/2000
    Munch forms a close bond with a TV reporter who was sexually assaulted by two men, but it is Stabler and Benson who make the first arrest.

    *** “NOCTURNE” - (Episode 1-21) Airdate 5/12/2000
    The trial of an accused child molester is jeopardized when a piano teacher is arrested for pedophilia and the prime witness has difficulty dealing with his past.

    “SLAVES” - (Episode 1-22) Airdate 5/21/2000
    An attorney suspected of keeping a Romanian immigrant as a sex slave is linked to a woman’s murder. Meanwhile, a police psychologist interviews the SVU detectives and tells Captain Cragen that one of his detectives should be removed from duty.

    Each Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episode is presented by Universal in its original full-frame aspect ratio (4:3), and the results, while not overly impressive, are still quite good. Flesh tones are almost spot-on, black level is deep and dark, and color rendering is done rather effectively. As you might expect, the rock solid black level leads to better than average shadow delineation. There is also a touch of edge enhancement here and there, but only enough to warrant mentioning, and it never detracted from my viewing experience.

    My only complaints are that the image sometimes appears a little on the soft side, fine detail is a bit lacking in backgrounds, and all of the scenes in the interrogation room have a substantially grainier appearance than scenes in other environments, particularly those shot outdoors. This could be a stylistic choice though, which someone with more familiarity with this show than I have might be able to speak to.

    Putting things into perspective, none of these minor complaints affected my ability to enjoy the episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, as I did not expect it to look like Attack of the Clones. It is obvious that the creators of this show do not skimp when it comes to production value, which is evident from the quality of this transfer, which is certainly better than some of the other TV shows I have seen on DVD. It certainly should not disappoint fans, but there are just enough minor issues with this transfer to keep me from calling it great.

    The episodes of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit are offered in Dolby Digital Surround, which does a nice job of reproducing the source material. This series is largely dialogue driven, and spoken words come through clearly, without any sibilance, hissing, or compression that I could detect. As you probably already guessed, there is precious little in the way of surround activity, save for some background noise during outdoor sequences, and whenever the annoying sound that precedes a new sequence plays. Bass response is equally limited, although the rap beat thumping over the outdoor basketball sequence in the “Sophomore Jinx” episode brought my sub to life for a little while.

    For Spanish speakers, a Dolby Digital Spanish mix (2.0) is included for each episode.


    **Law and Order – Special Victims Unit: The Beginning:
    The interesting and informative featurette, which runs for 25 minutes, features interviews with the principal cast members, as well as Executive Producer Ted Kotcheff and series creator Dick Wolf. Hardcore fans of the series will probably not be surprised by any of this featurette’s content, but I was quite surprised to learn that the series was not originally affiliated with Law and Order. It is also important to note that this featurette is not “new”, as a friend showed me the previously released “Premiere Episode” DVD for this series, which also contains this featurette. Since I had never seen an episode of Special Victims Unit before, I enjoyed this featurette, and found it to be a nice addition to the set.

    ** Dann Florek – Squad Room Walkthrough
    This somewhat short, offbeat featurette treats viewers to a guided tour of the Law and Order: Special Victims Unit Set, conducted by none other than Dann Florek (Captain Cragen). Florek is engaging and jovial, which belies his on-screen persona, points out some of the personal touches the cast has added to the character’s desks and the bulletin boards on-set. He also touches on some of the contributions he made to the décor of his office, and how the elevator in the station also doubles as a doctor’s office. A fun little extra for fans of the show!


    (on a five-point scale)
    Episodes: [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]
    Video: [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]
    Audio: [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]
    Extras: [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]
    Overall: [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    Although it does have a few flaws, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is a spin-off worthy of the family name. Its considerable, thoughtful approach to mature and challenging material make it a refreshing alternative to some of the mindless drivel the networks are bombarding viewers with these days (e.g. almost any reality show, afternoon “court” show, and most sitcoms). The human dynamic and fascinating cases are what sets this show apart, and allows it to overcome some bland characters (at least as far as the first season is concerned). Further, the investigations feature enough interesting plot twists to keep viewers guessing, and the episodes I viewed managed to avoid ridiculous and irritating endings that come “out of left field” which can be rare for these types of programs.

    As for the DVD, Universal has generated a respectable transfer and audio track for this release, which should more than satisfy fans of the show. In addition, the extras, while not abundant, are interesting (and amusing, in the case of Florek’s tour), and more than what has been offered on many previous releases of television product.

    In the final analysis, I can say that this series is professionally put together, interesting, and intelligent without being condescending. Better still, each episode offers provocative cases and plenty of interesting plot twists. Granted, it is not as good as the original Law and Order (at least in my opinion), but if you like thoughtful crime/drama, you could certainly do worse than to pick this release up. If you already watch this show, than I am just preaching to the choir.

    Thanks a lot Universal, you have encroached on what little free time I have left by encouraging me to want to check out future episodes of this series. [​IMG] If you knew how few television programs I actually go out of my way to watch, you would know that my previous statement was just short of high praise. Recommended!!!

    Stay tuned…

    Release Date:
    October 21st, 2003
  2. Kevin Porter

    Kevin Porter Supporting Actor

    Jan 10, 2002
    Likes Received:
    Finally, a show made for sex perverts! Nice review Jason. I might Netflix this one. I've seen a couple L&Os and this looks interesting enough. BTW, anyone besides me find it weird that 2 of the episodes (Closure and Bad Blood) are also names of X-files episodes?
  3. Elizabeth S

    Elizabeth S Producer

    May 9, 2001
    Likes Received:
    Real Name:
    Elizabeth S
    Thanks for the review! I've been watching this show from the beginning, and I prefer it to the original "L&O" now. Something about the Stabler/Benson dynamic is just fascinating.

    While I recall that Season One attempted to delve a bit into Stabler's family life, they dropped that aspect pretty quickly, though he often still refers to his children.
  4. Shane_Anthony

    Shane_Anthony Stunt Coordinator

    Sep 30, 2003
    Likes Received:
    Hey Jason,

    Thanks for the review very informative. What about it's counter part Law&Order:CI??..Are you planning any reviews also

    I pre-ordered mine both for Oct 21st at amazon.ca but CI is on b/o 3-5 weeks[​IMG]

  5. Jason Perez

    Jason Perez Second Unit

    Jul 6, 2003
    Likes Received:

    Thanks for the compliment, I really appreciate it! [​IMG]

    To answer your question, I should have the CI review up by tomorrow night (I just received these two days ago, and watching 16 episodes around 10-hour workdays and family life is no small task!).

    Let me just whet your appetite by saying I am not surprised CI is on back order. That show is simply amazing!!! Good choice, and I am sure you will enjoy it when it finally arrives (hopefully sooner rather than later)!


  6. Joseph DeMartino

    Joseph DeMartino Lead Actor

    Jun 30, 1997
    Likes Received:
    Real Name:
    Joseph DeMartino
    Thanks for the review. I think you would have had an even better impression of the writing if you'd watched "Disrobed" and "Limitations" rather than a couple of the episodes you did watch. [​IMG]

    The set points up an interesting problem with TV shows on DVD, one that I hope somebody dealt with at the recent conference: What do you do with cross-overs? I ask because I noticed an episode called "Entitled: Part 1" in the list above. Doing a little checking I discovered that the second part of the story is told in an episode of the original Law & Order (from the 7th season no less) called "Entitled: Part 2". (And both involve a family that the detectives first encountered back in the first or second season of the parent series.)

    Anybody watching this set is going to see the first half of a two parter, and even if they're inclined to buy a Law & Order set in order to get part two, they're going to have to wait awhile.

    And this is a problem with two shows from the same "stable", Dick Wolf's production company and Universal Studios. What happens with series that cross-over as a ratings stunt because they're on the same network, but aren't otherwise related?

    There were at least two stories that I remember which started out on Law & Order, but finished up on Homicide: Life on the Streets. How the heck does that get handled on DVD - or in reruns, for that matter? (I've been told studio marketing guys don't even like two-part episodes within a series, because syndicators and local stations find them annoying. What the heck do you do with a two parter that crosses series. Can a station that bought L & O, but not Homicide even show part 2 of these stories?)

    This is going to get very annoying at some point.

    (Side note: Richard Belzer's character, Det. John Munch, was originally on Homicide. After that show was cancelled he moved over to SVU in part because he had already been established as a character in the L & O "universe". There was a week where Belzer played John Munch in three different series on two different networks, on alternating nights. He was L & O that Wednesday, in the conclusion of that story on Homicide on Friday and crossed paths with Mulder and Scully when one of their cases involved a death in Baltimore in that Sunday's installment of The X-Files. [​IMG])

    BTW, Dann Florek's character was a lieutenant when he was running a detective squad. He was promoted to captain when he went to SVU. Running a squad is a lieutenant's slot in the NYPD, as also seen on NYPD Blue. (Where former regular Kim Delaney's character, Diane Russel, is currently working out of Special Victims in Brooklyn. [​IMG]) Florek did at least one guest shot on NYPD Blue - it is almost like there is a "New York cop show reperatory company" so often do you see the same faces on unrelated shows, or the same face in a different role on the same show. [​IMG]


  7. Michael Harris

    Michael Harris Screenwriter

    Jun 4, 2001
    Likes Received:
    When Homicide was released on DVD I heard an interview with its producer on NPR's Fresh Air and he was asked about the crossover episodes with Law and Order. He stated that the Homicide episode was always part 2 because it was using the ratings of Law and Order to feed into his program. He also said that the Homicide episode was written so that it could stand on its own. That may be true for Homicide but not for the lead-in Law and Order episode.

    The interview should still be in the Fresh Air archives which is linked to www.npr.org

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