Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the sordid cases assigned to the crime fighters of NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit — airing tonight at 10 pm/ET — can be difficult for viewers to stomach. But, believe it or not, they are even harder to digest for the detectives' off-screen counterparts. Just ask Mariska Hargitay, who plays Olivia Benson.

"How can people tune in to these shows every week?" she muses. "Sometimes acting [the material], I feel quite sick. And, for me, the stories with the kids are the hardest, hands down."

Regardless of the toll that her work exacts, the daughter of 1950s bombshell Jayne Mansfield remains committed to carrying a badge. If her efforts can lighten someone else's load, she declares, then she's happy to bear the burden that is placed upon her. "I'm so proud of our show — it sheds light on an area that people tend to shy away from. It brings to the forefront things that people are so ashamed of.

"[True-crime survivors] have grabbed me on the street or on the subway and cried and said, 'I was molested by my piano teacher; I can talk about it now,'" she adds, awestruck. "To illuminate darkness [through entertainment]... is good."

Despite the fact that the SVU cast is full of stress-relieving crack-ups — "You think you're on the set of Everybody Loves Raymond," Hargitay insists — there still may be trouble on the horizon for the L&O franchise. "With DNA, we're catching criminals left and right," she points out. "It's almost a problem for the writers now, because they have to creatively find a way around it."