For 20 seasons, television’s longest-running drama, Law & Order: SVU has featured plots that could very well have been “ripped from the headlines.” Show creator Dick Wolf and his writer’s room have turned the complicated, gory, and often cruel stories that lead the news into 45-minute episodes have gripped audiences for decades. There was an episode loosely based on Chris Brown’s assault of Rihanna, an episode about the high rates of sexual assault in the military, and most recently, an episode with similarities to the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations.
Perhaps a result of the show's subject matter, there are episodes that jump ahead of the news. Crimes that are suspected or whispered about get the full prosecutorial treatment on SVU. The world of SVU is one where the bad guy always faces Lady Justice.
As K. Austin Collins observed for Vanity Fair, a 2011 episode titled “Flight,” featured detectives Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) investigating a character who is eerily similar to Jeffrey Epstein. At the time, it was one of the show’s more ambitious plotlines: A billionaire is accused of sex trafficking young girls for him and his wealthy associates.
When the detectives go after him, they realize this is no ordinary sexual predator. He has an entire system in place to protect him, a woman who helped him procure the girls he’d assault, and a total lack of fear for consequences. This billionaire believes he is above the law. At the time, it made sense in the context that most of the work with the assumption that powerful men are running all over the world wreaking havoc and getting away with it.
By the beginning of this year, it wasn’t just plausible though; thanks to investigative reporting from Miami Herald reporter Julia Brown, it was confirmed that Epstein was responsible for a number of crimes, and his powerful associates were implicated as well. In that episode, the billionaire escapes punishment — one of the few times the outcome in the show is less harsh than the outcome in real life.
Perhaps the most absurd example of an SVU episode come to life is from the same season. In an episode titled “Bang,” Starring John Stamos as a man named Ken Turner. It starts as the detectives interview him as a witness in an abandoned baby case. But through the course of the investigation, they discover he’s actually the father to over 20 children. Turner’s been on a mission to create an army with his own DNA. To do so, he impregnated women without their knowledge, through various methods of deception and coercion. It was one of SVU’s most absurd and convoluted plotlines, considered to be the imagined genius from the SVU writers room.
Yet, in June 2019, a similarly absurd story was published on BBC, about a Canadian doctor who was secretly inseminating his patients at a fertility clinic with his own sperm. According to investigations that began in 2016, the doctor did this to over 20 people, starting back in the 1970s. While there are noticeable differences between the two stories, it is notable that one of the series' most far fetched plotlines preceded — by at least four years — a very similar case.
With season 21 starting tonight, there are 20 new episodes coming down the line that will try to tackle our national headlines. It will be interesting to see how SVU contends with the next decade of society’s worst behavior, and which stories they bring to our attention.