Take a look at any episode of Law and Order: SVU, and you might think of it as a show in which darkness rules and faith is overshadowed by the despair seen by its heroic cops on the streets of New York City. Now heading into its 11th season, SVU (which stands for "Special Victims Unit”) is one of the darkest and most brilliantly written shows on network television due to its unflinching depictions of the destructive aftereffects sexually based crimes leave on victims and cops alike.
Yet anyone who’s a longtime viewer of the series also knows that Detective Stabler, played by Christopher Meloni, faces that darkness with a profoundly strong sense of Catholic faith. Sometimes it’s referenced casually, as he makes a passing comment or provides a detail pertaining to church ritual or history – but sometimes it’s the only thing he’s got to maintain both his sanity and a steady emotional state.
Such a respectful and nuanced portrayal of religion is rare anywhere on television these days, so RELEVANT asked SVU showrunner Amanda Green about how she and her writing staff manage to pull it off. In particular, she broke down one of last season’s most harrowing episodes, called “Hell,” about an African refugee accused of rape and murder who has an emotional breakdown while recounting his being abused as a child soldier, and how Stabler brought out the truthful confession that could set him free by devoutly praying with him.
“In a nutshell what it’s about on SVU is, ‘What’s authentic to the character’s life?’” says Green, who opted to keep her spiritual beliefs private. “That scene in [the episode] ‘Hell’ where Stabler prays with the suspect, Elliot Stabler is a character who’s a devout Catholic. I’ve written scenes where he’s at a Confirmation and scenes of him with priests, but for the character Stabler, his faith is important.
“So what motivated that scene is my sense that that character in that situation as a detective used one of the tools in his toolbox. As a writer, I can only tell you that at that point in the story he hadn’t discovered an empathy for the [refugee] yet. He was trying to get a confession and that was the method that seemed right.
“He came to a place of terrific empathy with that character but at the moment he thought he was sitting across from a rapist who tried to kill, and wasn’t concerned with the man’s soul. He realized he might get something out of the ritual of Catholic prayer since the refugee was Catholic and ended up with a deeper window into the character’s soul and it wasn’t what he expected. Often regarding the religious aspects of a story, the answer all comes back to letting the characters speak from their personal histories.
“The network never gives us a hard time about anything. They trust we’re telling stories with integrity. Even with religiosity and political belief they ask that any point of view doesn’t seem like a buffoon and even if I as a writer don’t share a character’s point of view and am using the script as a way to challenge their thought, the network doesn’t want us to portray characters as a cartoon. There are some people who are such easy targets, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s not good writing or storytelling. It’s much better to find an intelligent kernel in someone. And I don’t like reading into the religious culture wars.”
Law & Order: SVU airs on Wednesday nights on NBC.