Most fans of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit can recite every word of the opening monologue – and take great pride in hitting the two ominous chords at the end of it too.
The prologue to the crime drama – which debuted in 1999 – has become embedded in popular culture. Even now, 20 years later, the emotive storylines and committed characters continue to resonate with audiences.
Executive producer and writer Julie Martin reveals to TV WEEK the secret to the series' longevity and why its leading actress is so arresting to watch.
Mariska Hargitay has won many fans as empathetic detective Olivia Benson since the pilot aired on September 20, 1999. Both on and off screen, she's a crusader for justice and an inspiring role model for viewers and her peers.
"Mariska took the leadership role, in both the squad room and as part of the crew, from the start," Julie says.
"To see her grow from being a single woman and a working detective to becoming a sergeant and adopting a child has been fun to write.
"I find it quite inspiring and I believe our fans do too. Her story and character resonates with people."
SVU – the second series of the Law & Order franchise that started in 1990 – has stayed fresh by keeping a finger on the pulse of real-life events worldwide.
"There's a certain level where storylines are derived from the headlines, and I'm always trying to stay current with what the stories happening in the world," Julie explains.
"Unfortunately, people still continue to do terrible things to each other, which is a neverending source for storylines. They're terrible things, but we don't want to just reflect that – we can shine a light on these things and give the audience the idea that there's hope and healing at the end.
"The best stories are told through our characters' eyes."
Who lives and who dies? It's no easy decision for the SVU writing team.
"Killing off a character is one of the most difficult writing tasks to have," Julie says with a laugh. "But sometimes there's just a sense that a character has run their course – and it often comes from the actors themselves."
"There's a discussion to figure out an ending that is both respectful to the actor and the character, and a satisfying dramatic arc for that ending. I'm not a fan of killing people off!"
There's one character who won't soon be forgotten at SVU headquarters: the sadistic criminal known as "The Beast".
"The storyline I helped write was about "The Beast", William Lewis [Pablo Schreiber]," Julie says. "He took Olivia hostage in season 15, which was incredibly challenging.
"We were able to follow that storyline all the way through from the kidnapping, to how she dealt with it afterward with therapy, and then the subsequent trial.
"To have a lead character experience something so horrific and come out the other side to be a survivor was rewarding for all of us."
LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT airs Monday, 7.30pm, on Universal.
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