It's TV Anniversary Week at The Wire, and we're taking a special look at the inordinately prestigious crop of shows celebrating milestone anniversaries this fall. Today, we're looking at NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which premiered Sept. 20, 1999.
In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous, especially when Dick Wolf and the writers of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit get together. Over the years the detectives have changed and the rape/rape-murder/child abuse/child-abuse-rape-murders have only gotten more bizarre.
But at the heart of this ridiculous show is an effort to bring awareness to awful crimes, to teach victims that it's never their fault, to give them an idea of what their options are. SVU literally does the Lord's work, which is probably why we give it so much leeway and why its guest stars have been nominated for so many Emmys.
Since only a lunatic would try to rank all of the amazing SVU guest stars over the last 15 years, we settled on just the Emmy nominated ones. All of the women (and one man, Robin Williams) on this list are excellent actors, so the ranking is based on the quality of the character, how memorable the actor made the role and how integral the character was to the plot of the episode. Points were taken off for episodes that were really bad, and for Emmy nominations that were given purely because a famous film actor deigned to appear on television.
16. Angela Lansbury
Episode: Season 6, Episode 20: "Night"
Emmy: Nominated, 2005
Character: Lansbury plays another wealthy mother from a philanthropic family, but this time her son is a neurotic genius and a serial rapist. (The family lawyer is played by Bradley Cooper, who is a racist.) This wasn't a great role and we're not clear why she was nominated, other than the fact that it's Angela Lansbury.
15. Mare Winningham
Episode: Season 5, Episode 2: "Manic"
Emmy: Nominated, 2004
Character: Winningham plays a mom whose son (Rory Culkin) executes two of his classmates as a result of a bad reaction to his psychiatric medication. There's a lot of "he couldn't have done it" and crying.
14. Barbara Barrie
Episode: Season 4, Episode 24: "Perfect"
Emmy: Nominated, 2003
Character: Barrie plays Mrs. Haggerty, who helps run a cult that impregnates missing teenage girls to create "clones" of dead children.
13. Cynthia Nixon
Episode: Season 9, Episode 1: "Alternate"
Emmy: Won, 2008
Character: Poor Cynthia Nixon. No one forced her to take this role — or maybe they did, we don't know — but it's a mess. Nixon plays Janice, along with her four other multiple personalities. The personality who thinks she's a psychiatrist reports Janice to SVU for abusing her daughter. They then realize that there is no abuse, and the daughter is actually Janice's niece (who was in jail for buying heroin when she was 8 months pregnant). Both of the girls were raped and abused by their father, while their mother did nothing, and so both become suspects when the parents are found murdered in their beds. Nixon is as good as the material allows her to be. The Emmy voters certainly thought so.
12. Brenda Blethyn
Episode: Season 10, Episode 8: "Persona"
Emmy: Nominated, 2009
Character: Linnie Malcolm (Blethyn) is the downstairs neighbor of a woman who was raped. When it turns out the victim was raped by her abusive husband, Malcolm and Detective Benson try to save her. Her husband kills her for trying to leave him, and then, out of nowhere, it turns out that Malcolm killed her abusive husband and then escaped from custody decades earlier.
11. Carol Burnett
Episode: Season 10, Episode 16: "Ballerina"
Emmy: Nominated, 2009
Character: Burnett plays Birdie Sulloway, a faded former Rockette and yet another wealthy Manhattanite whose husband has committed rape and murder. When SVU goes to arrest him, he falls out of a penthouse window and lands on their car. Birdie convinced her adult ward/lover to do it, as well as kill a few of her other husbands. She rats him out, even though she is randomly diagnosed with (literally) 12 malignant tumors and four months left to live.
Episode: Season 11, Episode 18: "Bedtime"
Emmy: Won, 2010
Character: Ann-Margret's character is at least two-steps removed from the central rape/murder. An investigative journalist is found raped and dead, which leads to another murder from several decades ago, which leads to a philandering man with a series of bitter ex-girlfriends who thought he was going to leave his wife for them. Ann-Margret plays the bitterest ex-girlfriend — a boozy former D-list actress who kept the menstrual blood stained sheets from the time she had period sex with her former lover.
9. Jane Alexander
Episode: Season 1, Episode 15: "Entitled, Part "1 (also "Entitled, Part 2" on Law & Order)
Emmy: Nominated, 2000
Character: Alexander plays the super posh Regina (rhymes with vagina) Mulroney, the matriarch of very wealthy philanthropic family. Regina is very protective of her daughter Stephanie, who becomes an SVU suspect when a man she left a bar with is found in a car with a bullet in the back of his head and his pants pulled down. As is often the case, it turns out to be some completely random guy with black rimmed glasses who goes around shooting people.
8. Ellen Burstyn
Episode: Season 10, Episode 3: "Swing"
Emmy: Won, 2009
Character: Burstyn plays Detective Stabler's bipolar mother, who is reluctant to admit that she has a disease. When Stabler's bipolar daughter is arrested for breaking into a home and stealing a necklace, his mother serves as an example of a family history of mental illness.
7. Amanda Plummer
Episode: Season 6, Episode 9: "Weak"
Emmy: Won, 2005 (the first SVU guest actor Emmy)
Character: Another rape victim, but also a paranoid schizophrenic. Plummer's character is one of several victims of a stalker serial rapist, who is also in denial about his homosexuality. In other words, it's another bizarre plot, but Plummer had some fun with.
6. Robin Williams
Episode: Season 9, Episode 17: "Authority"
Emmy: Nominated, 2008
Character: We're not sure how SVU convinced Williams to take this role, but at least he got to put his considerable voice acting talents to good use. His character, Merritt Rook, pretends to be a police officer to convince a fast food manager to strip search one of his female teenage employees, a story not only ripped from the headlines but later dramatized in the 2012 film Compliance. Rook then uses his voice skills to fake an alibi (a waitress with the hots for him and a hotel employee), and later convinces the jury not to convict him. Later, he kidnaps Detective Benson, as he's being arrested, blows up his lair, and escapes.
5. Marlee Matlin
Episode: Season 5, Episode 22: "Painless"
Emmy: Nominated, 2004
Character: Matlin, who is deaf, plays Dr. Amy Solwey, a doctor who also teaches people how to commit suicide on her website. Toward the end of the episode, while Solwey is being interrogated, she stops signing to her translator and shouts "Stop! They're in pain. I know what pain is, I live with it every day."
4. Martha Plimpton
Episode: Season 3, Episode 21: "Denial"
Emmy: Nominated, 2002
Character: This is one of those "wtf" episodes. Plimpton's character, Claire, is found high and unconscious on a bed at a party with track marks between her toes and a mummified child's finger in her purse. But despite being on a weird episode, Plimpton is great — if you close your eyes you can almost see her rolling her eyes with each line. At one point Claire tells Ice-T he looks like a pimp.
3. Tracy Pollan
Episode: Season 1, Episode 10: "Closure"
Emmy: Nominated, 2000
Character: Despite whatever SVU has become, this is one of those episodes that reminds you that this show sometimes does important work raising awareness about sexual assault. Pollan plays Harper, a young woman who is raped by a stranger who broke into her apartment in the middle of the night. Afterwards he makes her take a shower. Within the first few minutes of the episode we see Harper smoking a cigarette, bracing herself to call 911, and then describing the attack to the officers at the precinct.
2. Leslie Caron
Episode: Season 8, Episode 3: "Recall"
Emmy: Won, 2007
Character: Of all the dramatic, devastating performances on this show, Caron's is the best. Her character Lorraine Delmas is raped by the son (Charles Shaughnessy) of her childhood friend — forty years later she helps solve the case by providing evidence. Her big scene, of course, is when she finally admits that it happened, and that the weight of keeping the secret destroyed her engagement and followed her throughout her life.
1. Marcia Gay Harden
Episode: Season 7, Episode 6: "Raw" (appears in later episodes)
Emmy: Nominated, 2007
Character: Harden plays FBI Agent Dana Lewis, who is working undercover as Star, a member of a neo-Nazi group. Star somehow managed to be the comic relief of an otherwise bleak episode (there's a sniper shooting at an elementary school and a court room shooting) by demanding respect for her Second Amendment rights and spewing racist bile at Detectives Mulch and Tutuola in a southern accent. In later seasons Lewis returns as a rape victim, and shows the more dramatic part of her range. All of the actors on this list are excellent, but Harden's character is the most memorable, and a large part of that is thanks to her.