Law & Order: SVU |


10-11 PM · NBC · Returns Sept. 25

Every morning on the set of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, stars Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni compare notes on the emotional states of their characters. That might include, say, being really sickened or despondent about the case of the week. But there’s one totally different emotion that comes up again and again. ”She’ll go, ‘All I wanna do is make out with you,”’ Meloni says of Hargitay. ”And I’ll go, ‘Yeah, me too, with you.”’

To be clear, they’re talking about their characters here. Still, that kind of mushy talk is darn near sacrilege in the Law & Order universe. But with 8 seasons and 15 Emmy noms to its name, SVU has earned the right to get personal. For the third season in a row, the drama was the most popular of the Law & Order incarnations, averaging 12 million viewers. And it’ll be the lone representative of the franchise on NBC this fall, since the original returns midseason and Criminal Intent was demoted to cable net USA. But even SVU’s future appeared in doubt last year, due to touchy salary renegotiations for Hargitay and Meloni, who finally signed new two-year deals in January. ”I think people really do love Mariska and Chris,” acknowledges creator Dick Wolf. ”If [the series] gets schmaltzy, it’s not my favorite way to serve the meal. But the secret to all the shows is great storytelling, and [SVU’s] storytelling is dead-on.”

In fact, the show seems to succeed because it strays from the investigate-solve-repeat-and-keep-your-personal-issues-to-yourself formula Wolf introduced 17 years ago. Sure, Hargitay’s Olivia Benson and Meloni’s Elliot Stabler solve a new heinous crime each and every week, but we are also offered glimpses into their equally intense off-duty lives. This season will be no exception: Stabler’s estranged wife will give birth to his baby while Benson continues to simmer with jealousy. And new cast member Adam Beach (Flags of Our Fathers) will reveal his own past as a special victim. As always, though, those personal struggles will come to light mainly through cases. ”It’s about understanding the characters through the workplace,” exec producer Neal Baer says, ”as opposed to going home with them.”

There will, of course, also be plenty of harrowing crimes, and plenty of high-wattage guest stars to commit, solve, and prosecute them. Think Cynthia Nixon as a schizophrenic, Elizabeth McGovern as a psychiatrist who teaches torture techniques, Melissa Joan Hart as a teacher accused of rape, Gloria Reuben as a new attorney, and Aidan Quinn as the husband of a beating victim.

But the biggest names — and the ones that keep viewers coming back — remain Hargitay and Meloni. And fans can’t help but wonder: Will these partners ever become…partners? ”I got this e-mail that was like, ‘Just one kiss! Please! It’s not fair!”’ Hargitay says. ”Our fans just obsess about us getting together.” Sometimes a little schmaltz goes a long way. —Jennifer Armstrong