Mariska Hargitay, <EM>Law & Order: SVU</EM> Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: SVU

Plotlines ripped from the headlines. An emphasis on crime over character. The signature "dum dum." Although these are staples of Dick Wolf's venerable franchise, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (Tuesdays at 10 pm/ET, on NBC) has always differed from its siblings. Over the past eight years, we've gotten to know a lot about the show's two main detectives: Christopher Meloni's hunky but hotheaded Elliot Stabler, and Emmy-winner Mariska Hargitay's empathetic Olivia Benson. Although the cases they work are still the series' hook, their soap-opera-like personal sagas — Stabler's unstable home life, Benson's background as the child of rape, their undeniable sexual attraction — have been stealing the focus of late. And why not? Most viewers admit that Stabler and Benson and their tumultuous partnership are the reason they tune in (and why fans breathed a collective sigh of relief when the stars recently renewed their contracts through 2009), and SVU consistently earns the highest ratings out of all the L&Os.

In this week's episode, "Philadelphia," Benson's story takes center stage. (Warning: spoilers ahead) Through kinship DNA analysis, she locates Simon Marsden (played by Six Feet Under's Michael Weston), the half brother she never knew. Unfortunately he's incarcerated, and meeting him sends Benson on an emotional journey that forces her to confront her mysterious past and paternity. (Marsden will return for "Florida," an episode set to air during May sweeps.) Understandably, Benson's personal turmoil affects every aspect of her life, including her professional partnership. "In the past Benson has always had to stick up for Stabler," explains executive producer Neal Baer. "Now Stabler has to stick up for her, which we've really truly never seen before. You're going to see Mariska as you've never seen her, just stunning and frightening."

As for whether this shift will lead to romance, Hargitay laughs. "I get asked that a lot," she says. "[Benson and Stabler's] relationship is very complex. Sometimes it's like brother-sister, and sometimes there's a lot of sexual chemistry. I think their passion for the same job is what makes them so close. The average lifespan of an SVU detective is four years, and here are two cops who have been in it so long that they're basically isolated from the rest of the world. It's just so loaded and layered. I know a lot of people want to see them together." So, back to the original question: "I think sometimes even Olivia wants that," says her portrayer. "But I don't think that will ever happen."

Of course, the fate of "Ellivia" is really in the hands of the writers. Although Baer says that "right now their relationship is still evolving," he allows, "You never can say never." There certainly are no plans for them to get together anytime soon, particularly since Stabler is trying to reconcile with Kathy, his estranged wife. One other impediment to romance is gone, however — Stabler's temporary partner/love interest, Dani Beck (played by Connie Nielsen in a six-episode arc earlier this season). "Beck won't be back," Baer says. "The whole intent [with her character] was to bring on someone who had never done Special Victims and to show that it's not a job for everyone."

One person who will resurface is Flags of Our Fathers' Adam Beach, who played Brooklyn SVU Det. Chester Lake in a January episode titled "Outsider." "Adam is going to be in the last episode [of this season], and next year he'll become a series regular," Baer says. "Lake has his own way of doing things and that will cause problems for the other detectives. He's also a special victim himself, and he will click with Benson because of her backstory." Although in "Outsider," Lake acted as a surrogate partner for Ice-T's Fin Tutuola, Richard Belzer fans should take heart: His character, comical conspiracy theorist John Munch, isn't going anywhere. "Everybody's coming back," insists Baer. "Belzer, Diane [Neal as ADA Casey Novak], B.D. [Wong, as Dr. George Huang], Dann [Florek, as Capt. Donald Cragen]... the whole gang."

For the next two seasons at least, SVU will continue to tackle contemporary, controversial issues. Baer, who is also a pediatrician, is particularly passionate about the ones that affect minors. "In March we have an episode on teen alcohol abuse. Next year we're doing a show about people who believe HIV isn't a virus, and therefore don't treat it in themselves or their children. I'm also very interested in a story that came out recently about people with disabilities who go through in vitro and screen out certain embryos so they can give birth to a child like them.

"If there's a social issue you can think of that has ethical implications, we'll tackle it," he continues. "Stem-cell research, cloning, fetal alcohol syndrome.... We're always looking to be on the cutting-edge."

Hargitay, for one, is thrilled with the direction of SVU, both in terms of the characters and the cases. "You'd think that after eight years, I'd be done, but I'm so excited by the story lines," she says. "The scripts that keep coming in seem to outdo the previous ones. I feel completely revitalized, reenergized, reinspired and rejuvenated.

"Olivia has had to shut down a lot of her feelings," Hargitay notes. "She doesn't have a family, she doesn't have a man, she's not in a relationship, she doesn't have children. She's always taking care of everybody else, but she isn't taking care of herself. I think she's finally ready to look inward instead of outward. I'm so not done with Olivia Benson. I think I am more invested in her now than I've ever been."

Procedurals fans can find exciting scoop on Without a Trace and Criminal Minds in the Feb. 26 issue of TV Guide.

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