As Law & Order: SVU begins its 20th season on the air, it joins the ranks of only two other live action shows that have lasted as long — the James Arness Western series Gunsmoke (1955-1975), and the original Law & Order (1990-2010). But the exceptional thing about SVU that allows it to stand apart from the others is the fact that, after two decades, it’s still going strong. This is not a show limping across any sort of ratings finish line, much to the joy of actress Mariska Hargitay, who has been there since day one. 

“There are no words for this sort of moment,” offers Mariska, who plays Lieutenant Olivia Benson. “And this is an accomplishment that we’re still all taking in. I think me the most, and I’m so humbled by the fact that I’m doing this for what seems like a lifetime.”

Focusing on sex crimes, when the series debuted two decades ago, it was oftentimes unsettling due to the fact that it was delving into territory seldom approached on television. “I think that SVU was ahead of its time dealing with this kind of subject matter,” she offers. “First of all, it was progressive in dealing with the subject matter to begin with, and then in its shedding light on these issues and having the vision to go into a territory that most people shied away from. But it also just respected its audience. 

“Dick Wolf,” adds Mariska regarding the show’s creator and executive producer, “knows better than anyone how to assemble the best writers, and these writers have dealt with this very difficult, painful, delicate subject matter with the utmost care and commitment and have, again, respectfully told these incredibly different stories. Then there’s the set-up: it’s very different than other shows in that there’s such a personal component to the issues and the storytelling.”

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There is, she feels, a powerful legacy that the show has built over the years between the storytellers and the audience. “It’s having people feel heard and seen, and having a story be told that can change the trajectory of someone’s life,” she reflects. “What I’m most proud of is when a viewer/survivor/fan comes up to me and says, ‘I never told anyone this; your show changed my life.’ I literally hear that a lot, so I think that I and my cast members have a unique relationship with the people that watch SVU specifically. To be a small part of someone’s healing, for me, is such a privilege and an honor. That’s beautiful. And the fact that the show gave me a platform to not only take it out of the realm of my work, but also be a part of a larger conversation about ending sexual violence.

“I think the show has been part of a cultural conversation and is part of a cultural shift,” Mariska elaborates. “Things are so different today than they were 20 years ago, and I do believe that so much of that is because of the territory that SVU ventured to go in. We took these sort of issues to the water cooler, because if it was on television, then it was okay to talk about. Again, I’ve heard repeatedly that SVU gave people permission to talk about it for the first time. For me, that’s the accomplishment. That’s the power. That’s the legacy.”

Law & Order: SVU begins its 20th season on NBC Sept. 27.