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Mariska Hargitay’s staying power continues to drive ‘SVU’

Mariska Hargitay as Olivia Benson in "Law and Order: SVU."Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Watching last week’s crossover episodes of “Law & Order: SVU” and the new spinoff “Law & Order: Organized Crime,” I kept returning to one thought: FREE MARISKA.

I still remember her arc on “ER” back in the late 1990s, as a desk clerk in the ER who falls in love with Dr. Greene. She was compelling as her vulnerable character dealt poorly with unrequited love, and I recall thinking, “Who the heck is that actress?” But since “SVU” premiered in 1999, Hargitay has been almost exclusively playing Olivia Benson of the New York City Police Department, either on “SVU” or on one of Dick Wolf’s other “Law & Order” or Chicago shows.


Don’t get me wrong. She’s perfect as Benson, who is compassionate but no-nonsense, and smart but emotionally available. She’s one of TV’s best leading women in terms of network shows. In last week’s episodes, she elevated an otherwise forced attempt to reintroduce Christopher Meloni’s Elliot Stabler into the “Law & Order”-verse, as Benson dealt with her longstanding anger over his sudden departure a decade ago. She wasn’t willing to let him apologize, because she has spent years trying to move forward. Hargitay brought a depth that the writers didn’t make much room for.

But still, I’d love to see her stretching out, and moving beyond the strict procedural format, where she has been for the better part of 22 seasons. Meloni has done a variety of roles — before “SVU” he shone as the unforgettably nasty Chris Keller on “Oz,” and after “SVU” he stood out on on “Pose,” “Happy!,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and “Maxxx.” He hasn’t restricted himself to the safety and comfort of an NBC crime-fighting gig. But Hargitay is ensconced, and “SVU” isn’t going anywhere soon, I suspect. Last week’s “SVU” episode was a ratings hit, as was the “Organized Crime” premiere right after it.


I did not love the “Organized Crime” setup, by the way, which feels like a bunch of mob clichés thrown together, but we’ll see if it improves in the coming weeks.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.