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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I recently bought the season 1 SVU DVD set. It's a show I enjoy, but
since I was 13 when it first went on the air, I didn't exactly know
about its beginnings.
It's probably the show's weakest season, though if you think about it, it really ought to be. The hard-hitting plots are all there, but it took the actors some time to really settle into their characterizations, particularly for the then-brand new characters of Benson and Stabler (as opposed to Cragen and especially Munch, who had been around before). Through the season, there's some definitely awkward moments as the characters do or say things that they'd never do later in the series. Even the photography isn't really quite there - the "feel" of the show just isn't quite the same. Now, that said, it definitely hit its stride around half to 2/3 of the way through. Being that this is episode 20 out of 22 in that first season, it's definitely in that "good" range.
This episode has a nicely creative teaser; reporter Sarah Logan (Jennifer Esposito, who is excellent in the role) is doing a special report about herself, describing the now cold-case of the rape she suffered some months earlier and imploring her viewers to offer the police whatever help they can. You can already tell this has a "last resort" sort of feel to it. A woman watching the telecast in a hotel room realizes, based on Sarah's descriptions of her two attackers, that she's having a one night stand with one of them. Benson and Stabler arrive and arrest him, and the bulk of the episode is spent searching for the second attacker.
The better part of this episode is more or less told from Detective Munch's point of view. Sarah befriended him during SVU's investigation of her case, and the two have a mutual trust as well as a comfortable, almost playful rapport. Esposito, as I mentioned, is terrific in this role - she goes from frustratingly asking Munch for details about the man they arrested to almost tearfully identifying him in a lineup to having that playful back-and-forth with him, and she makes it entirely believable.
The episode turns when Sarah is killed by a bomb blast in her apartment. The viewer is compelled to feel at this point very much like Munch does, upset and frustrated. It speaks to Esposito's performance that with maybe 15 minutes of screen time she was able to craft a character that the audience can easily care about and actually be upset at "losing." Through hagglings in trial, some gumshoe work, and an emotional climax when the final suspect is apprehended and interrogated, the viewer is right with Munch in his agitated pursuit of justice.
The only real complaint I have with the episode is how neatly everything comes together in the last two or three minutes. It's as if they simply ran out of time and kind of had to rush the final resolution. Yes, this does tend to be a hallmark of the entire Law & Order franchise, but it's directly contrasted in this episode, when SVU has a suspect in custody after only the teaser and can do much more with him. I do think it was better to do this than to have no closure at all, but it did still irk me just a tiny bit.
All in all, a terrific, infinitely re-watchable episode with a great guest star (actually, two - Reiko Aylesworth of '24' fame appears as an Assistant District Attorney) and reasonably creative storytelling (something you don't always see in Law & Order). It all adds up to a great viewer experience.
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