Why The Dick Wolf Law And Order Universe Is Falling Apart

Now in its 25th season, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit remains the longest-running prime-time live-action series in American television history, which means that Olivia Benson has now been on the job for a quarter of a century. In that time, serving in her official capacity as the lone good NYPD cop, she’s been run ragged. Benson (played by Mariska Hargitay) has been shot, been shot at, been nearly sexually assaulted countless times, been kidnapped once or twice, been given a child only to have him taken away, adopted some other loser kid I can’t begin to even try to care about, worn a lot of hot leather jackets, been suspended from work, been promoted to the top—and after all that, they still won’t let her kiss her former colleague Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni). A lousy way to treat the officer saddled with the burden of being the entire police force’s moral beating heart.

In the 25 years that SVU has been on the air, the characters have been steadfast, but everything surrounding the show has changed. Creator Dick Wolf may have kicked off the entire Law & Order universe because he believed that the cops were the good guys, but the public isn’t necessarily on board anymore. Our understanding of policing has changed; Americans are less confident in the police than ever before, and while I don’t have clear stats on how all New Yorkers feel about the cops, I think the recent response (ranging from understandably confused to certifiably cracked) to the entity known as the “NYPD Dance Team” says it all. There’s no money for Sunday library service in New York, but there are a bunch of dog-shit dancers being paid out of the city’s budget. I sleep easy at night knowing that.

And so, quietly, seemingly in response to the 2020 George Floyd protests, Law & Order shows have steadily attempted to tell a more accurate—or at least a less inaccurate—story of how policing works in New York City. At best, the results are jarring; at worst, they’re straight-up stupid. The cops on SVU have always been the more compassionate breed amongst Wolf properties, but the show that once used the term “tranny hooker” with alarming abandon now features Benson in monologue after monologue opining about how to treat “survivors” with care. The original Law & Order, currently in its 23rd season, now features Mehcad Brooks as Detective Jalen Shaw; his plot points are mostly relegated to how he’s policed as a Black man whenever other cops mistake him for a civilian. Brooks isn’t the first or only Black actor playing a cop on the show—Ice-T is still very much there, squint-acting like the best of them—but now these actors are given eye-rollingly tedious subplots about racism. Meanwhile, the prosecutors on the series are suddenly struggling with moral complications surrounding their job, with more hand-wringing around, say, the morality of sending a young Black teenage boy to jail. (As for the most recent and worst offshoot, Law & Order: Organized Crime tries to avoid a human element altogether; the show seems to have been written by all of our dads after they read one book about the New Jersey mob in 1998. Let us never speak of it again.)

It’s a tortured and impossible task, to walk this fine line between the valorization of policing that Law & Order was built on, and the more progressive ideals that the show now wants to espouse. To have the franchise live for another 25 years means it has to adapt. But how do you edit a show built on the flawed and often cruel institution of policing in the first place?

A recent SVU episode perhaps best encapsulates this strange attempt at mutation. Benson is pulled into an investigation after Chief Tommy McGrath’s daughter is assaulted. He handles it like most of the male cops do when one of their female family members is assaulted: He tries to get involved in the investigation, making everything harder for everyone else, bashing his thick skull through the legal process like only a man in power could. McGrath’s presence taints the investigation, and he’s immediately inclined to rage and violence when the cops have a suspect. (I wanted to ask, In what world would the cops let the police chief participate in an investigation having to do with his own daughter? Then I remembered that I live in this world.)

SVU old-heads will remember how the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau has historically been represented on the show—for years, Robert John Burke portrayed the gruff and useless Ed Tucker, whose raspy throat did most of the acting work needed to show that this guy sucked. He wasn’t effective at weeding out criminality among the force’s own ranks, but he was good at railroading his colleagues, making life hell for the cops just trying to clean this filthy city up. This season, he’s replaced with Aimé Donna Kelly as Captain Renee Curry, a Black police officer who, unlike her predecessor, is portrayed as competent and morally right. “I got into IAB hoping to make a difference,” she tells Benson. We believe her—hell, she even went so far as to investigate our beloved Benson herself.

But look, this is still a show about cops. While Kelly’s character might be an adroit addition to the NYPD, her plotlines thus far are about how hard of a time she’s having internally. The stories told in this context aren’t just about how she’s finding corruption, but about how much inevitable internal pushback she’s experiencing. Here, the show keeps telling on itself: Why is it so hard for this one lone honest IAB officer to get anything to happen? Shouldn’t we take note of how much resistance her attempts to right a wrong are met with within the NYPD? Are we supposed to root for Ice-T’s Fin Tutuola when he berates a teenage suspect who turns out to be innocent? (It turns out the kid had footage that exonerated him, but he was unwilling to give it to the cops because he didn’t trust them. The cops are mystified at his silence, as if they didn’t just try to bully him into a false confession mere days earlier.) IAB is supposed to create checks and balances for the police force, but Law & Order has historically presented them as evil, unrelenting, and devious. Now, in the new world order, they just seem neutered.

Law & Order is attempting a kind of doublespeak: It wants to engage in the same old doldrums of cop television (being a renegade, ignoring the rules, literally beating people up until they give you the information you need) while also fretting over how hard it is to get anything done. The franchise wants to show that even “good” cops need to break the rules, that they have their own biases to contend with, while also showing how a department like IAB buckles under internal pressure from its own police force, and how the thin blue line offers negligent cops incredible protection. The series has always been copaganda, built on a foundational love for the police, and yet it can’t help but give the public ammunition against itself. What we are left with is an identity crisis. Rather than ideologically simple, don’t-think-too-hard-about-it entertainment, Law & Order has become more of a many-layered psychodrama that seems worried its audience doesn’t trust it anymore.

Law & Order’s central tension was once bad guys vs. cops. Now it’s good cops vs. bad cops. Even copaganda like this franchise can’t adequately make the just-a-few-bad-apples argument; the failure of policing has become a main plot point in perpetuity, and it’s torture to watch. If we’re stuck with this mess that keeps trying to have it both ways, the very least they can do is just let Olivia and Elliot kiss. It’s been 25 years of pro-cop pablum—it’s time to finally give the people what we really want.

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