Law & Order: SVU star and executive producer Mariska Hargitay summed it up best on Twitter on Wednesday night. “Season 20. #History,” she wrote after NBC’s announcement that the long-running crime drama has been renewed for a 20th season. That ties the record for longest-running drama series currently shared by Law & Order and Gunsmoke.
Just an hour or so earlier, Hargitay had broken the pickup news to the cast and crew during Law & Order: SVU’s Season 19 wrap party.
In May 2010, Wolf was denied a shot at breaking Gunsmoke‘s record when, in a surprising move, NBC’s previous regime canceled the mothership Law & Order series after 20 seasons. Setting a new all-time longevity mark had meant a lot to the uber-producer, who was very upset by the abrupt cancellation. He now has a second shot at history and likely won’t be denied again.
While Wolf’s career contributions to NBC alone may warrant a record 21st season for Law & Order: SVU, it is the continuous strength of that show that likely would clinch the pickup. In its 19th season, SVU is tied with another Wolf Show, Chicago PD, as NBC’s second highest-rated drama series behind This Is Us, averaging a 2.2 adults 18-49 most current rating. Being able to continue to connect with younger generations and ranking among the network’s highest-rated dramas two decades in is pretty remarkable.
As the mastermind behind the Law & Order franchise, Wolf has been instrumental in Law & Order: SVU’s staying power, but a major part of the credit has to go to star Hargitay who plays the show’s iconic Lt. Olivia Benson of the Special Victims Unit of the NYPD, an elite squad of detectives that investigates sexually based crimes. The role has earned her an Emmy Award and eight nominations for Lead Actress in a Drama Series.
While the mothership Law & Order series went through multiple lead cast overhauls, with none of the original cast members staying past Season 10, Hargitay has been Law & Order: SVU‘s heart and soul since the pilot, leading the cast for 20 seasons. The last 19 of them she has had Ice-T by her side.
Such continuity helps as, even on a procedural drama, viewers identify with the head character, creating an emotional bond with them that makes them come back. That’s probably why CBS’ NCIS keeps going strong heading into Season 16 with original star Mark Harmon, while the mothership CSI drama started fading after William Petersen left.
Along with Law & Order: SVU, Hargitay herself has a shot a making history. With the Season 20 renewal, she is tied with Gunsmoke‘s James Arness and Milburn Stone as well as Kelsey Grammer as the actors who have portrayed the same character for the most consecutive seasons, 20. (Grammer did it as Frasier Crane on two series, Cheers and Frasier, and was a series regular for 17 of the seasons versus 20 for the other actors).
If SVU goes to Season 21, Hargitay will hold the record outright. That alone should be tempting for the actress to stay on the show to assure a Season 21 renewal — at this point, she is so closely associated with SVU, it can only continue with her in it.
But there is a lot more than that for Hargitay.
“I think she loves the show, she loves to be Benson, to be that protector of women, she loves her foundation,” former NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke told Deadline a year ago. “It’s not a job for her anymore, it’s a calling.”
In 2004, Hargitay launched her Joyful Heart Foundation, which “helps survivors of sexual assault heal and reclaim their lives.” She also has picked up another cause tied to the themes explored on the show, leading a campaign to clear the rape kit backlog, which could help law enforcement agencies solve longstanding sexual assault crimes.
In the caption accompanying a photo Hargitay posted Wednesday night from the Season 19 party, she hinted she and show could go on for a while. “Mile 19 of who knows how many,” she wrote. “Running strong… So proud to run with you.”