Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Law & Order: SVU Characters Fans Never Expected To Fall In Love With

There are some shows in TV history that carry so much cultural and historical importance that the very mention of their name seems laced with gravitas, and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" is decidedly one of them. Created by Dick Wolf as the first and most successful offshoot of the "Law & Order" franchise, this NBC crime drama series has remained an integral part of millions of Americans' cultural diet for over 20 years now.

Of course, longevity has a price. Like every series with a large ensemble cast that runs for that long, "SVU" has seen its fair share of actorly rotation, with various stars and their characters entering and leaving the show from season to season — as evidenced by the fact that there have been 21 total series regular actors on "SVU," yet only Mariska Hargitay as Olivia Benson has been a regular from day one and remained with the show until now. And the number of cast entrances and exits becomes even more massive when you factor in recurring stars. In other words, "Law & Order: SVU" is a show with a lot of characters. Some of those characters are broadly beloved, some not so much ... and then there are the ones that didn't seem so likable at first, yet grew on the audience over time, as discussed by fans in a recent Reddit thread.

Peter Scanavino's Dominick Carisi surprised fans

On March 20, 2023, Reddit user u/EtherealPossumLady started a thread on the r/SVU subreddit titled "Who's a character you didn't expect to like, but became your favourite?" The original poster cited Fin Tutuola (Ice-T), the former detective and current sergeant at the NYPD Special Victims Unit introduced on Season 2, as an example of somebody who seemed like they'd only be on the show for a while, only to stick around and become indispensable.

The most-liked comment on the thread, by u/IsThereaUserNotTaken, cited the character of Dominick Carisi, played by Peter Scanavino. Originally introduced in Season 16 as a temporary replacement for Detective Nick Amaro (Danny Pino) during his reassignment to Queens, Carisi took a while to get used to the delicate modus operandi required of SVU agents given his prior experience in Homicide, but eventually gelled with the team and joined the Manhattan SVU squad in a permanent capacity. 

Redditors' reaction to the character mirrored that arc, with many initially assuming he'd be an unlikable, antagonistic force in the ensemble, then being surprised by his evolution. "I thought he was going to be a jerk when he was first introduced and would be relocated fairly quickly. Now he's my absolute favourite," u/IsThereaUserNotTaken confessed on Reddit. User u/surrrita added, "The Carisi in the beginning is a different person that Carisi now, it feels like they didn't know what direction they wanted that character to go in. I love Carisi now."

Reddit users fell in love with Raúl Esparza's Rafael Barba

The second most-liked comment was by u/BLBAHIB, who said of A.D.A. Rafael Barba (Raúl Esparza), "thought he was going to be a know it all & then I fell in love with the know it all."

Indeed, upon his introduction as a recurring character in Season 14, Barba was quickly established as having a markedly different relationship with the SVU team compared to previous district attorneys who worked with it. A brilliant lawyer with an extremely diligent understanding of how trials and sentences work, he was very stringent about the level of thoroughness and credibility he expected of evidence and witnesses in any given case, often to the point of butting heads with the team due to his resistance to getting around the rules. This was all because, at the end of the day, he found that to be the best and most reliable way to do right by victims and make sure justice was done for them. As if that weren't enough to make him an unusually abrasive presence, Barba also had a positively massive ego.

All that, of course, is exactly what gave Barba his larger-than-life charisma and eventually endeared fans to him, so much so that he returned as a regular in subsequent seasons, ultimately becoming the longest-running regular district attorney character in "SVU" history. As summed up by u/burdettmusic, "he seemed so harsh when he started but I grew to absolutely love that harshness."

Diane Neal's Casey Novak was no downgrade replacement

Rafael Barba is, of course, not the only assistant district attorney to have left his mark in "SVU" history. Before him, fans of the show had already been surprised by the fondness they'd developed for Casey Novak (Diane Neal), originally brought in on Season 5 to replace Alexandra Cabot (Stephanie March) when she was forced to go into the Witness Protection Program. Reddit user u/dearwikipedia sang Novak's praises on the thread, writing, "I loved Cabot so I was more than a lil wary of the new ADA but now she might be my all time favorite character."

During Novak's time as a series regular, the show's writers went above and beyond to show that she was no downgrade. Unlike Barba, Novak was much more willing to bend the rules in the name of morality and became iconic among viewers due to her proclivity for risky, audacious, and even dangerous legal maneuvers, which allowed her to go down as one of the show's boldest, most indefatigable pursuers of justice at all costs. Original poster u/EtherealPossumLady themself chimed in to note that "casey was a pretty cool character."

Funnily enough, some people on the thread admitted to occasionally confusing Novak with her predecessor Alexandra Cabot, especially seeing as both characters eventually came back in recurring and guest form after their respective exits as regulars. User u/ashleighbuck wrote, "I didn't even notice the change....for like a long time. I still get them confused."

Fans have a soft spot for Elizabeth Marvel's Rita Calhoun

Elizabeth Marvel is no stranger to playing nuanced, ambivalent women whose role in the plot exists beyond simple "good" and "evil" moral reductionisms. And her ability to project complexity and retain likability and magnetism even while her characters engage in questionable behavior has been of particular use to her portrayal of Rita Calhoun, the "SVU" recurring character introduced in Season 14. A defense attorney with few reservations about who she'll take on as a client, Calhoun often finds herself going up against the "SVU" team in the courtroom and develops an ongoing rivalry with Rafael Barba over the course of both characters' tenures on the show.

Reddit user u/Danvsluth24 cited Calhoun as a character they unexpectedly grew to enjoy. "I don't know why but even if she's defending a criminal I'm always happy to see her," they wrote; replies singled out her sparring matches with Barba as particularly worthy of love. Indeed, Calhoun proved time and again she was every bit Barba's equal when it came to doing her job competently and getting in delightfully snarky digs while doing it. As a matter of fact, despite her frequent opposition to the show's protagonists, Calhoun always remained a respectable figure in the "SVU" universe and even helped Olivia Benson and the others in several cases. It helps that she was played by such a certified wellspring of charisma — as u/amazona_voladora put it, "I love Elizabeth Marvel in anything she does."

Several other characters were cited as unexpected fan favorites

Many, many other characters were mentioned as unexpected fan favorites along the thread — a rather expected effect of asking such a question about a show that introduced so many characters over the years. One well-liked comment, by u/Bree7702, cited the character of Special Agent Dana Lewis, played by the great Marcia Gay Harden on four different guest spots across Seasons 7, 8, 12, and 14. As character introductions go, hers could scarcely have been less sympathetic: She was initially presented as a member of a white supremacist group before being revealed as an FBI agent specializing in undercover work. From there on out, her tough-as-nails attitude and work ethic endeared her to fans, until her storyline took a dark, unexpected turn with a series of shocking revelations about her backstory. User u/GraceJoans summed it up in a reply with, "Dana is one of my favorite repeat guests. Her storyline was bonkers, MGH was fantastic."

The character of Detective Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish) was also celebrated in the thread, with user u/jeahboi writing, "I was reluctant to embrace post-Stabler SVU and the new characters, and Rollins wasn't my favorite at first. But she really grew on me, and I feel like her character truly matured and evolved for the better." Nick Amaro (Danny Pino), Mike Dodds (Andy Karl), Sonya Paxton (Christine Lahti), Peter Stone (Philip Winchester), and John Munch (Richard Belzer) were some of the other popular picks mentioned in the thread.