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She’s simply arresting.

Mariska Hargitay, who plays tough as nails Det. Olivia Benson on “Law & Order: SVU,” expresses only one concern during a wide-ranging interview. She doesn’t want to take credit for one of the most seismic shifts on TV — the rise of tough, compassionate, and drop-dead gorgeous lead women in traditionally male-dominated crime dramas, like “CSI” “The Closer” and of course “Scandal.”

“Olivia opened the door,” Hargitay says. “At the time, I don’t remember any other characters like that. I am very excited and happy when I see other characters like this. I say the more the merrier, baby. I don’t want it to be an anomaly. Let there be all strong, amazing women and I am so happy to know there is an appetite now.”

“Special Victims Unit” — the last of executive producer Dick Wolf’s “Law & Order” franchises which once dominated NBC — kicks off its 17th season with a grisly two-hour show Sept. 23 and Hargitay is front and center.

Likening her to others who have played characters in prime time for decades – James Arness as Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke” for 21 years and Kelsey Grammer as Frasier on two shows for a total of 20 years, “SVU” showrunner Warren Leight says Hargitay is the only woman and the only one whose character made a difference.

“I don’t think James Arness changed the world views of cattle wrangling,” Leight says. “I loved Frasier but it is not as if we developed keen insight into psychiatry because of Frasier. Somehow there was a synergy between her and that role and what was going on in society and the empathy she brought to it and the perseverance she brought to it.”

Hargitay was not always taken as seriously.

“When I came in there, I don’t believe people understood how good she was,” Leight says. “And everyone thought it as about the chemistry she had with Elliot (Christopher Meloni) and people did not understand she could carry the show on her own.”

The only major change for the new season is a renovation to their squad room set — which was Hargitay’s idea, a perk to being the show’s star and its occasional director.

“When I started directing, I got nuts about my office,” she says.

Her personal space is a far cry from the functional sets at the show’s homebase, Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers studios. Framed Carolina Herrera sketches of gowns Hargitay has worn adorn walls in the outer office. Inside, a modern art painting takes up one wall and photos of her children (sons, 4 and 9, and daughter, 4) and husband are on other walls.

Behind a curtain are black and white photos of her glamorous mom, Jayne Mansfield.

A small room holds a day bed and an air of serenity. Hargitay, 51, knows how critical that is.

“My biggest challenge right now and what I’m really trying to change is sleep,” Hargitay says.

Like every working mom, Hargitay talks about trying to strike the elusive balance. She has this huge role, kids, husband, actor Peter Hermann, whom she met on this show, and her charity.

Hargitay started Joyful Heart Foundation 11 years ago to help victims of sexual abuse. After working on a show about the most depraved predators, Hargitay says she needed to help.

She has become such an advocate that she was with leaders like the Vice President last Thursday when they announced $79 million for tackling the backlog of rape kits necessary to prosecute criminals.

“Mariska became so associated with these issues,” Leight says. “And there she was yesterday with Vice President Biden, DA Vance and Attorney General Lynch … and she belonged there. She changed our awareness of what survivors go through and how society views rape victims. Her character and she have begun to make actual changes in the way society views sex crimes.”

In pure Biden fashion, he leaked that Benson will be promoted this season. She is a sergeant but becomes lieutenant.

On the season premiere of “SVU” Jefferson Mays is medical examiner Dr. Rudnick, who gets a sickening surprise. Dallas Roberts returns as serial killer Gregory Yates, and it’s a contest, which could never have a true winner, as to who is creepiest.


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