The Curious Case of Law and Order’s Never Ending Death
What I am about to write is pretty much a given: the police procedural/crime drama on tv is an exhausted genre. The modern detective drama in the Anglo-American world was inaugurated by Edgar Allen Poe’s detective short stories in the 1840s. His master detective was Dupin, a Frenchman (the stories were set in Paris), who postulated that a detective could apprehend a criminal by examining clues and retrospectively inhabiting the criminal’s mental state and/or habitus. Arthur Conan Doyle quickly took up the mantle and exploited it quite soundly. Both Poe’s and Conan Doyle’s (detectives Dupin and Holmes, respectively) had partners who were both kind of audience stand-ins. Later detectives, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Poirot were not always part of a pair but worked alone or acquired a partner mid-story.
On TV, we have famous examples of both versions such as Columbo, who was good but smarmy deluxe, and Cagney and Lacey. Unlike their British counterparts, these latter examples were part of the police force and subject to a fetish of American culture, self-realization comes primarily through one’s work. In the UK, the cultural legacy of detective fiction is everywhere: after all, isn’t even Harry Potter just a version of such fiction? In America, detective fiction is almost exclusively riffraff literature – no offense here, but James Patterson, give me a break. However, in the 90s, the advent of the Law and Order franchise brought back the detective story fully within the police drama, producing the first version of the modern procedural.
Here are the main markers of a Law and Order episode: Crime, police shows up, ironic quip (sometimes fails), obvious suspect is not the doer, real suspect, guilty verdict. At least in the beginning. In the show’s offshoots, the guilty verdict is now often missing because who did it is not really in doubt. And thus, this franchise now uses at least two reversals (see Aristotle) in its work with plot. The good thing about this franchise, which is now–again–exhausted but marching inexorably on until Mariska Hargitay’s kids college educations are paid off, is how news stories and such are drawn into the dramas. In the best of cases, these shows try to deal with complex social issues, though the treatment is strained: the police, as complexly as they can deal with issues, really want one outcome—to catch a bad guy. As the work of the Innocence Project has shown, any “bad guy” sometimes is fine. Moreover, the adversarial court-system with an either-or configuration (guilty-not guilty) looks at complexity in the face and throws up on it.
The problem has become, of course, that with many offshoots and many copy shows (Cold Case–Law and Order with flashbacks, NCIS–Law and Order but in the military), the format of the show is fried. Yes, there have been changes, but part of the problem of making too many format (generic) changes is that the audience expects it and likes it. There’s only so much one can do there. And then there are the stories, and here’s where we’re getting to the almost criminal. I’m thinking of SVU. In the last several years alone, stories that touch upon incest, either suggested or actual, are their crown jewels. Not only are they disturbing and quite truculent, they push the envelope of what we’re ready to believe. I do not object to touching upon incest: I actually wrote my dissertation on two novels that feature incest as an “open” secret. The problem is that they are pulling all the rabbits they can out of all the hats they can: so they shock us and shocks us with incest (something that cannot but create an effect), and what happens then is that we get inured to it. Worse yet, their use of such a powerful story element means that they’re not coming up with anything new and that slowly we are getting USED TO IT.
SVU is enjoyable, even at its most cliched and moralizing. Who among us have not been caught into a TNT or USA SVU mini marathon? We cannot resist an abstract sense of looking for “justice,” of catching the criminal, sympathizing with the victim, and knowing that in the end, even if they can’t put the criminal in jail, we know we are morally superior to both the sins of the criminals as well as the sins of the justice system. But getting used to shock after shock, especially within a predictable structural formula, cannot but impoverish us as individuals, as a society, and as tv viewers. In the end, shows like this can inure us to true horror. When we witness videos of violence perpetrated upon black bodies, LGBT bodies, and refuges, we cannot avoid but to respond by either feeling helpless or feeling that someone else will take care of the horror, will be the true agent for justice. That’s if we allow ourselves to feel at all.
Originally published on 8 Apr 2011, updated 24 Jan 2017