With two thirds of the "Law & Order" empire receiving a wakeup call this season thanks to competition from "CSI: NY" and "Desperate Housewives," "Special Victims Unit" is suddenly the franchise's star player, and this week's episode offers a good reason why. In addition to the show's top-flight cast and intricate storytelling, the producers actually bring a fresh spin to the old "he said, she said" rape conundrum, along with a clever finish that feels less gimmicky than sibling "Criminal Intent's" recent choose-your-own-ending stunt.

With two thirds of the “Law & Order” empire receiving a wakeup call this season thanks to competition from “CSI: NY” and “Desperate Housewives,” “Special Victims Unit” is suddenly the franchise’s star player, and this week’s episode offers a good reason why. In addition to the show’s top-flight cast and intricate storytelling, the producers actually bring a fresh spin to the old “he said, she said” rape conundrum, along with a clever finish that feels less gimmicky than sibling “Criminal Intent’s” recent choose-your-own-ending stunt.

Clearly inspired by the Kobe Bryant case in customary “ripped from the headlines” fashion, the latest “SVU” employs a clever back-and-forth narrative technique to keep the audience’s sense of what transpired shifting faster than the ball in a tennis match.

Billy Campbell guest stars as a dreamy college professor accused of raping a graduate student (Shannyn Sossamon). Yes, she came to his house and they shared a bottle of wine, but he says those bruises are because she wanted rough sex and her rape claim followed his insistence she not spend the night. Sure, she says, she wore a sexy undergarment, but that’s because she grabbed whatever was handy. Besides, why would she lie?

Written by Marjorie David and directed by Ted Kotcheff, a feature director (his credits include “First Blood”) who joined the show as an exec producer, the episode sustains this tension throughout the hour. In fact, the story steadily drops new clues and somehow finds time to devote to the regular leads, played by Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay, who find themselves at odds over the case.

The same well-balanced interplay is evident in the court proceedings, where the accused’s defense attorney (Viola Davis) concedes rape cases once unjustly blamed the victim before suggesting, “Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far.”

With its emphasis on sex crimes and vile predators, “SVU” often picks off the lowest-hanging fruit, showcasing the baddest of bad guys. From that perspective, it’s refreshing to see the show reach higher, daring to dabble in a storyline that provokes more frustration than righteous catharsis.

For my money, “NYPD Blue” remains the best crime drama in this hour and, despite diminished ratings, is enjoying a strong creative run through its final season.

That said, as one of the few stars in NBC’s firmament that hasn’t lost altitude, “SVU” should be credited for reminding us that the best crime drama often deals less in black-and-white than in shades of gray. Indeed, what really makes this episode special, it turns out, is not being sure who the victim is.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

Series; NBC, Tue. Nov. 23, 10 p.m.

Production

Filmed in New York by Wolf Films in association with NBC Universal Television Studio. Executive producers, Dick Wolf, Neal Baer, Peter Jankowski, Ted Kotcheff; co-executive producers, Michele Fazekas, Tara Butters, Jonathan Greene, Roz Weinman, Lisa Marie Petersen, Dawn DeNoon, Robert Nathan, Arthur W. Forney, Patrick Harbinson; producers, Peter Leto, David Declerque; co-producers, Gail Barringer, Jose Molina, Amanda Green; director, Kotcheff; writer, Marjorie David.

Crew

Camera, Geoffrey Erb; production design, Fred Kolo; editor, Nancy Forner; music, Mike Post; casting, Jonathan Strauss. 60 MIN.

With

Det. Elliot Stabler - Christopher Meloni Det. Olivia Benson - Mariska Hargitay Capt. Donald Cragen - Dann Florek Det. John Munch - Richard Belzer Det. Odafin "Fin" Tutuola - Ice-T Dr. Melinda Warner - Tamara Tunie Asst. District Attorney Casey Novak - Diane Neal Dr. George Huang - B.D. Wong
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