It's easy to take some shows for granted, especially if they run for years and are part of an overextended, albeit profitable, franchise. So it is with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the least formulaic and, in recent years, the most consistently compelling of the ubiquitous Orders.
SVU long ago overcame its initial reputation as a sordid wallow in sex crimes, and has become a destination for tricky and often disturbing psychological mysteries. Still going strong in its seventh season, the show is best whenever the case gets under the skin of lead detectives Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni). Each gets a vivid workout this month.
Hargitay deserves her third consecutive Emmy nomination for this week's suspenseful episode, built around a 911 call. It's a knuckle-biting race against time as Olivia stays on the phone with a disoriented 9-year-old girl imprisoned in an unknown location. Amid skepticism that it's all a hoax, Olivia stays the course, and Hargitay runs the emotional gamut from frantic desperation to vengeful resolve.
Meloni takes center stage in the Oct. 11 episode, as Elliot confronts his own deep-rooted rage issues in the wake of an assault case involving an ex-partner's son. Steroids are the catalyst in an exploration of father-son dynamics that sends the increasingly unstable Elliot to a shrink (Mary Stuart Masterson).
The best compliment I can give these episodes: I rarely felt I was watching a Law & Order show. If SVU keeps up this pace, it will have no trouble staying well ahead of its new competition, ABC's quirky Boston Legal and CBS' earnest Close to Home.