You’ve seen all the contenders, you’ve kept up with the buzz, and you’ve meticulously followed the ups and downs of awards season. You know the odds on La La Land, and you’re still really angry about that one review of Moonlight. In other words, you’re ready for the Oscars!
Well, almost ready. Allow me to suggest that you’re still missing an extremely crucial element in weighing the merits of this year’s Academy Awards field: Which nominees appeared on Law & Order? Lucky for you, Vulture has a guide to the episodes worth watching — and all of them can be easily streamed online.
Not limited to just one episode, Viola Davis appeared several times on Law & Order: SVU as no-nonsense attorney Donna Emmett. The role, which stretched from seasons four through ten, included dogged defenses of such indefensible characters as AIDS-Denying Mom, Child-Kidnapper Mom, and Rapist Professor. Davis’s best turn comes in the season nine episode “Cold,” where Emmett gets involved in a complicated interdepartmental case of police misconduct including one of SVU’s own officers, but if you’re picking just one Viola Davis SVU appearance, I’d go with season eight’s “Cage.” At first glance, there’s little reason to recommend it: It’s one of the few episodes that doesn’t include Mariska Hargitay, and what’s the point of SVU without Detective Benson? However, the episode also includes Elle Fanning as a fantastically waifish, creepy foster child, and none other than Margo Martindale as her monstrous foster mother. Classic SVU all around.
It’s worth noting that Davis also made one appearance in Law & Order: Criminal Intent, but when it comes to some Law & Order franchises, it may be best that we kindly draw a veil and let them rest in peace.
As a recurring defense attorney, Davis had several chances to build her Donna Emmett character, but her scenes were all brief and marginal. It’s a very different case for Isabelle Huppert’s guest starring turn in Law & Order: SVU’s season 11 finale, “Shattered.” Huppert plays the mother of a young boy who’s been kidnapped off the street. What initially appears to be a straightforward custody case quickly escalates into a dramatic and surprisingly gory hostage situation, with Huppert on the trigger-end of a holdup in the SVU morgue. She gets full rein to be as unhinged and over the top as anyone could ever want, and she really takes advantage of the role’s dissociative, lost-her-grip-on-reality turn.
If you watch only one Oscar nominee’s Law & Order episode, this would be the one I’d pick, both for Huppert’s performance and also for what’s patently among the best Law & Order cold-open setups of all time. I’d quote it line by line, but I don’t want to spoil it for you.
First of all, does anyone’s face more obviously signal “I know I’m a minor character, but c’mon, I’m clearly involved in this crime!” than Michael Shannon’s mug? That is definitely the case in Law & Order: SVU’s season six episode “Quarry,” where Shannon plays an initially overlooked former friend of a murdered child whose body is discovered under a baseball field years after his death. Shannon shows up in the first few scenes as a reluctant attendee of the murdered child’s wake, and sure enough, midway through the episode he’s knee-deep in a child abuse, suspect-already-in-prison, does-criminality-lurk-within-us situation.
It is with great sadness that I inform you that whoever did the casting for the “Unstable” episode of Law & Order: SVU cast Mahershala Ali in what should’ve been Wentworth Miller’s role, and vice versa. Miller gets quite a bit of screen time, and he’s fine. But if you watch this episode, you’ll feel deeply disgruntled that he sucks up so much space while Ali gets comparatively little to do. It’s not nothing, though, and there’s at least one moment toward the end where Ali gets more space to breathe. Also, Wentworth Miller throws someone out of a window!
… Samuel L. Jackson?
Okay, Samuel L. Jackson is not nominated for an Academy Award this year. But he is one of the ceremony’s presenters, so let’s take the opportunity to point out that, yes, Samuel L. Jackson appeared on an episode of the original flavor Law & Order. In a first season episode from 1991, titled “The Violence of Summer,” Jackson plays a defense lawyer in an episode about gang rape and cocaine dealers. It’s a small role, but the episode is still worth checking out — not only for Jackson, but because one of the accused rapists is a young, super-charismatic Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Bonus: Other early roles of note!
If you’re still jonesing for more Academy Award–Law & Order crossover goodness, Sundance.tv has a list of previous Oscar winners who appeared on the franchise. (Julia Roberts! Robin Williams! Marcia Gay Harden!) But I’d also suggest you delve into the back catalogue of this year’s other nominees. Ryan Gosling has sadly never been on Law & Order, but he was on an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? called “The Tale of Station 109.1.” Meanwhile, Kenneth Lonergan, nominated for his direction of Manchester by the Sea, actually wrote an episode of the ’90s cartoon series Doug. “Doug Throws a Party/Doug Way Out West” is available for those who do some YouTube browsing. You’re welcome.