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'Special Victims Unit' puts a dark twist on 'Law & Order'

Richard Belzer, Dean Winters and Dann Florek star in NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"

December 10, 1999
Web posted at: 12:45 p.m. EST (1745 GMT)

From Bill Tush
CNN Entertainment News Correspondent

NEW YORK (CNN) -- For almost 10 years, "Law & Order" has been bringing the criminal justice system into the living rooms of NBC viewers on a weekly basis. This season, the show spawned a spin-off. Like the original, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" takes crimes from the streets of New York City to its courtrooms with the help of an ensemble cast.

But if you tune into "Special Victims Unit" (on Monday nights at 9 p.m. ET), be prepared to see and hear some things you would not see on the original.

"There's a division in most major police departments called, 'Special Victims Unit,' which is what sex crimes are euphemistically called," explains actor Richard Belzer. "They're considered the most heinous crimes, when not only do you violate somebody, but you violate them sexually. So it's an elite squad that takes care of that."

Belzer joins the unit as Det. John Munch -- yes, the same Munch he played for seven years on the Baltimore-based cop show "Homicide," which was done in by poor ratings at the end of last season.

Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay

Although ratings for his latest venture aren't outstanding -- FOX's "Ally McBeal" and CBS's "Everybody Loves Raymond" regularly beat the fledgling show -- "Special Victims Unit" is at least keeping apace with another NBC freshman, "West Wing," and beating NBC newbie "Third Watch."

The ensemble cast of which Belzer is now a part includes Dann Florek, who played Capt. Donald "Donnie" Cragen on "Law & Order" for three seasons. Cragen has now joined the special unit.

"I think to shine a light on these kinds of problems is very important and a good thing," Florek says. "We're still living at a time when a lot of rapes go unreported because the victims feel ashamed. ... I think the more we can do to bring these things to light -- we're saying we're all with you."

Making up the rest of the unit are Dean Winters, as Munch's partner, Det. Brian Cassidy -- Winters says his character is like Munch's "protege, he's trying to get me in all this conspiracy" -- Christopher Meloni as Det. Elliot Stabler, and Mariska Hargitay as Det. Olivia Benson.

"It's been quite an education doing this show and living in New York at the same time, and being exposed to so many different kinds of people," says Hargitay, a Los Angeles transplant. "It really changes your mental state." Is she referring to the people in New York, or on the show? "Both," she replies, laughing.

Many of the cast have ways to divert themselves from the often gritty scripts. Meloni lifts weights. Florek fills his TV office with family photos -- "It's centering," he says.

And, Hargitay has a photo of screen legend -- and Hargitay's real-life mother -- Jayne Mansfield on her desk, too, ensuring that it won't always be so dark in the special victims unit.

Swept away by the sweeps
November 5, 1999
Reunited -- and resurrected -- for 'Homicide'
October 22, 1999
'3rd Rock From the Sun' kicks off Emmys with a win
September 12, 1999
Something familiar: Monday night fall TV
August 31, 1999

  •'Law & Order: Special Victims Unit'
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