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The Real Reason Law & Order: SVU Towers Over The Law & Order Franchise

On the surface, the shows in the "Law & Order" franchise aren't much different from each other, beyond the specific crimes they address. Currently, the original "Law & Order" covers homicides and other high-profile crimes in New York City. "Special Victims Unit" deals with crimes that are sexual in nature. "Organized Crime" follows Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) as he battles Gotham's criminal gangs. Past shows have dealt with other aspects of the legal system. "Criminal Intent" followed the detectives in the NYPD's Major Crimes Unit, while "Trial by Jury" focused on the courtroom.

Despite these differences in subject matter, most of the shows in the "Law & Order" franchise have similar themes and follow a similar structure. Creator Dick Wolf says that all of his shows follow a two-part format: one part murder mystery, one part moral mystery (via The New York Times). 

The original "Law & Order" ran for 20 seasons between 1990 and 2010, then was revived in 2022. Only one of the show's many spin-offs has even come close to replicating that longevity: "SVU." Since it premiered in 1999, "SVU" has gone on to become the longest-running primetime live-action series in TV history, longer even than the original "Law & Order."

What's the secret to "SVU's" longevity? Mariska Hargitay's Olivia Benson.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Olivia Benson is one of the most popular characters on TV, period

First, let's look at the numbers. The "Law & Order" universe has featured plenty of likable and popular characters on the law enforcement side of things (Not so much on the criminal side of things). Jerry Orbach won over a generation of fans with his depiction of Detective Lennie Briscoe, the tough and quick-witted NYPD homicide detective. Sam Waterston's Jack McCoy was only supposed to be around for Season 5, but he was so well-liked that producers kept him around for sixteen more seasons and counting (via The New York Times).

As popular as other characters from the "Law & Order" universe might be, none of them has come close to Olivia Benson's popularity. Olivia Benson is one of the most popular characters not just from the "Law & Order" franchise, but in all of TV. In 2015, a poll by entertainment agency Trailer Park, 21% of viewers picked Benson as their favorite female TV character. "Empire's" Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) came in second with 8%, and "Game of Thrones'" Daenerys Targaryen taking third at 7% (via Glamour).

The industry agrees. Since 1990, several main cast members on "Law & Order" and "SVU" have been nominated for Emmys, including Michael Moriarty four times, Waterston three times, and Orbach, Meloni, and Shirley Knight with one nomination each (via The Emmys). Hargitay, meanwhile, has been nominated eight times, and is the only main cast member to win (via The Emmys).

It's no secret that audiences tune into TV shows because they fall in love with characters and enjoy spending time with them. Fans have been tuning into "SVU" for more than 20 years to see Benson. No other character in the "Law & Order" universe has that much draw. 

The show continued to deliver even after Stabler left

To be fair, Olivia Benson isn't the only well-liked detective on "SVU." Fans regularly pick "SVU's" other detectives as their favorites, like Richard Belzer's John Munch, Ice-T's Fin Tutuola, and Christopher Meloni's Elliot Stabler (via Ranker).

Stabler was Benson's partner for the first 12 seasons of the show, and he was an important ingredient within the show's formula. He's another "good cop" pursuing unambiguously "bad" criminals, so he's easy to root for. He's tough, like Benson is, but he's also quick with a one-liner at the expense of "SVU's" criminals. On top of that, Stabler and Benson's "will they or won't they" dynamic in the early seasons was a welcome antidote to the show's otherwise grim subject matter. 

Losing a well-liked main character like Stabler would ordinarily disappoint viewers, but "SVU" has continued for another 10 seasons without him. In that time, the show has centered most of the non-investigative stories about Benson only, focusing on her ascent through the NYPD career ranks, her struggles entering middle age, and her adventures with single motherhood. 

With no disrespect to Meloni, "SVU" has continued running strong in his absence. Clearly, Hargitay is the heart and soul of the series.

Above all, Benson embodies what the show is all about

"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" is a highly bingeable show, which might seem like an odd choice given its subject matter. "SVU" deals with sexual crimes, including rape, incest, and human trafficking. These are obviously extremely painful and sensitive issues that many in the audience are personally familiar with. But for many viewers who have experienced this kind of trauma, watching "SVU" is a cathartic experience. "SVU" succeeds because of how it handles these issues. It centers the narrative on the people who are victimized, and it's emphatically anti-perpetrator. 

Olivia Benson is the best representative of the show's point of view. As a character, no detective is more hard-working or empathetic than Benson, or more determined to stop criminals. 

Mariska Harigtay is well aware of the impact the show has on its fans, and the sense of responsibility that gives her. "I was quickly educated about how this show was affecting people," she told TV Guide Magazine in 2018." Shortly after the show premiered in 1999, fans let Hargitay know in person and via fan mail that her character resonates with them. "People would say, 'Thank you...I've never told anyone before [about my sexual abuse],'" Hartigay said. "It's always been a personal connection" (via TV Insider). 

Every artist who creates a character hopes that it will connect with people. While other characters in the "Law & Order" universe have been popular, none have quite connected with audiences the way Benson has. She's the show's not-so-secret weapon.