In the cottage industry that was "Law & Order," one show remains: "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."
And this alone proves procedural shows can shine. Stories make sense, writing is tight, and actors are sharp. The result is a gritty drama celebrating its 300th episode Wednesday, Oct. 24.
Though the show shoots all over New York, its home base is a cavernous studio on a Hudson River pier. Here, actors, directors and producers speak with Zap2it while shooting the milestone episode.
This plot, as expected, deals with an excruciating topic -- kidnapping. As a dad bends down to retrieve a $20 bill on a subway platform, a stranger snatches his 7-year-old son and jumps onto a departing train.
The cops are off and running, stopping at nothing until they find the perps. Three actors have starred on the show since the 1999 premiere: Mariska Hargitay, Richard Belzer and Dann Florek as Detectives Olivia Benson and John Munch and Capt. Donald Cragen.
They have grown close over 14 years, but in between scenes, they retreat to their own dressing rooms. Dogs belonging to Ice-T, Kelli Giddish and Belzer roam these rooms, and the thwack of a speedball echoes. Belzer, who plays the conspiracy-minded Munch, shows off his boxing moves. It is a good thing his character is armed.
Belzer talks about how grateful he is for this role. "Everywhere in the world I go, I get recognized," he says. He's been stopped in Istanbul, Paris and Vienna.
This series continues to work, Belzer says, because "every script is new. Every story is a case. That's the genius. Every week there is a formula, but the writing is so good it never gets boring."
That formula was used in the 1990 pilot for "Law & Order," which Florek was in.
He recalls his first line from the first show: "Come on, fellows, I need something. I'm getting my butt barbecued." He picked this over another role because "it was like nothing else."
Florek infuses Cragen with a sense of decency. This season began as the cliffhanger ended, with Cragen implicated in a murder and cover-up involving city officials and prostitutes. During the course of the season, Cragen rebuilds his reputation.
"That's what becomes the rest of my journey," Florek says in his dressing room, which has a gadget that makes flatulence sounds and a Cragen pull-my-finger doll.
Florek can't watch an episode when it first airs. "They're always too fresh for me," he says. "Normally all I see is what I think was missing. When I get to half a year later, on USA, I have emotional distance."
Just as Florek was on the first "SVU" episode, so were four actors being brought back by showrunner Warren Leight for the 300th: Chris Orbach, son of the late, great Jerry Orbach (Detective Briscoe on "Law & Order"); Ramsey Faragallah, Mili Avital and Gordana Rashovich.
Leight, quick to note that he has done only 28 episodes and was "hardly taking a victory lap," describes "SVU" as "the Jeep Cherokee of NBC. We just keep going, and we outlast them all."
Another bonus in the 300th will be using footage from the first year, when detectives refer to an old and similar case. Leight considers the technological strides made since the premiere. "We survived the transition to talkies," he says.
Jean de Segonzac, director of the first and the 300th episodes, has dealt with all of them. Surrounded by real maps annotating New York police precincts, de Segonzac considers why a show that plumbs the seedy underbelly of humanity can thrive.
"When my daughter was in eighth grade, all of her friends were obsessed with 'SVU,' " he says. "I went to the movies as a kid to learn about life. What are their adults up to? Why are they behaving in this fashion?"
It's a question the actors grapple with as they learn to leave the hideous subject matter at work.
"My coping mechanism is to be able to go home and talk about kindergarten," says Danny Pino, who plays Detective Nick Amaro. In his dressing room, weights, a jump rope and Yankees memorabilia share space with photos of his sons. "In a way, it just ties you closer to the job; it makes it more visceral and personal. We have all spent time with actual SVU detectives."
Giddish, who, like Pino, started last year, is more relaxed now that her character of Detective Amanda Rollins is established. She stopped having nightmares related to the show.
"It is a pleasure to be part of this show that has affected as many people as this has," she says.
"SVU" touches such a raw nerve, especially among those who have been raped, that women write to Hargitay. Her response was to establish the Joyful Heart Foundation, a nonprofit agency to help heal the sexually abused.
It's been a very long day on the set, and Hargitay wants to return to her three young children. As the rest of the cast heads out, she settles into a couch to reflect on how her character, Olivia Benson, evolved.
"She has matured so much," Hargitay says. "She is a protective lioness, this fierce mother you want on your team and wants to right the wrongs.
"This changed my whole view of the world," Hargitay adds. "I have gotten a whole awareness from this show. It changes lives. I have heard that so often, and it just absolutely thrills me."
Photo/Video credit: NBC