With a record-setting 21 seasons, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is the longest running primetime show on American television. Since its premiere in 1999, SVU has seen its fair share of rotating cast members, with beloved characters retiring and fresh faces joining the squad.
However, one character has been a mainstay of the show since day one: Detective Olivia Benson.
But while Olivia is synonymous with the show today, many diehard fans will recall that back in Season 8, Detective Benson was so conspicuously missing from episodes that fans began to wonder whether actress Mariska Hargitay had quietly left the show entirely.
So, why did Mariska Hargitay leave SVU in Season 8, only to return a few episodes later? Keep reading to find out.
Why did Mariska Hargitay leave 'SVU' in Season 8?
When we first met her on the premiere of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Mariska Hargitay was Detective Olivia Benson, a passionate Special Victims detective with a personal connection to the heinous cases she was tasked with solving. Today, Olivia is the longest-running female character in any primetime series, and fans have watched as she has grown from Detective to Lieutenant to Captain.
Playing the part for more than two decades now, Olivia is a mainstay of the show and actress Mariska Hargitay has earned eight Emmy nominations and one win for her role. However, there was a time back in Season 8 when fans noticed that Detective Benson was very noticeably absent. Was Mariska trying to walk away from the show? Were executives trying to slowly write her off the show?
The explanation turned out to be much simpler: Mariska was pregnant.
The eighth season began filming during the final stages of her pregnancy and to hide it, the crew made ample use of desks, folders, and closeups to obstruct her baby belly. In fact, many fans have also pointed out later episodes of Season 7, where Olivia only wore very dark colors or large puffy coats, and was usually sitting at a desk or holding something that obscured the view of her abdomen.
But once her belly was no longer small enough to hide, the writers decided to send Olivia "away on assignment" while the actress took a much-needed maternity break from the show. Mariska even shared the news on her own personal blog, assuring fans that “the writers are working on some really great story lines, and there will be a special guest star filling in.”
There was a time that Mariska actually considered leaving 'SVU.'
Last year, Mariska revealed that after her co-star Christopher Meloni left the show after 12 seasons as Detective Elliot Stabler, she also struggled with whether she still felt a commitment to the show. “I did a lot of soul-searching of whether I wanted to go on,” she said. “I was on my way to being at peace to be done.”
But she credited the show’s team and NBC for keeping her motivated to continue. With new opportunities like directing and producing episodes, Mariska felt like she was growing with the show and credits these chances to try new things as the reason she felt “challenged and inspired and excited,” to remain with SVU.
Over her years on the show, Mariska has also become a real life Olivia Benson. Shortly after she joined SVU, the actress became a trained rape victim advocate and in 2004, she established her nonprofit the Joyful Heart Foundation, a charity that provides support to survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse.