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Objections Overruled

Some say the spin-off's not up to snuff, but Bruce Fretts comes to its defense

''Special Victims Unit'' divides ''Law & Order'' devotees

Based on strong early ratings, NBC picked it up for a full season, yet ''Law & Order'' fans keep telling me how disappointed they are in the new spin-off ''Special Victims Unit.'' Their objections fall into two categories: It's too much like ''L&O,'' and it's not enough like ''L&O.'' I'll examine each argument before delivering a final ruling.

It's too much like ''L&O.'' True, the opening sequence is a blatant carbon copy of the original, and ''SVU'' needlessly borrows the trademark location cards and ''dun-dun'' sound effects that precede almost every scene. But that's just window dressing. The spin-off also shares the dense storytelling style of ''L&O,'' and for that, we should be thankful. This isn't a show you can watch while folding laundry; zone out for a minute, and you could be lost for the rest of the hour. The cases at the core of the first two episodes have been every bit as complex and unpredictable as the best installments of ''L&O.''

It's not enough like ''L&O.'' Okay, I could've done without the mushy monologue by Dann Florek's Capt. Donald Cragen about his wife's death in a plane crash. (I'm sure Florek's just happy to have his old role back after surviving the debacle of ''Desmond Pfeiffer.'') Still, delving into the characters' personal lives more than they do on the ascetic ''L&O'' isn't a bad idea. We understand more deeply the reactions of detectives Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) and Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) to sexual assault cases when we know that he's an overprotective dad and she was conceived during a rape.

In a season top-heavy with lightweight dramedies (''Cold Feet,'' ''Get Real,'' etc.), ''SVU'' is a refreshingly dark-hearted alternative. Its ratings may take a hit when ''Ally McBeal'' starts airing new episodes against it on Mondays at 9 p.m. on Oct. 25, so NBC would be smart to bump it to 10 o'clock before then -- that way, it would no longer have to face CBS' deservedly surging ''Everybody Loves Raymond'' as well.

I admit ''SVU'' is far from perfect. When it comes to playing a street-smart hard-ass, Hargitay is no Angie Harmon (whose ''L&O'' character, A.D.A. Abbie Carmichael, has crossed over twice already). And we haven't seen nearly enough of Richard Belzer, transplanting mordant ''Homicide'' cop John Munch from Baltimore, or ''Oz'' con Dean Winters as his greenhorn partner. But ''L&O'' wasn't flawless when it started either. Or did you forget George Dzundza? I rest my case.

Originally posted Sep 30, 1999