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“What will become of the children?” Why, they’ll be raped and murdered, of course.

[ 312 ] July 1, 2013 |

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit ranks among the worst shows on television. Not because of the acting — though the fact that Richard Belzer’s been going through John Munch’s motions since 1993 has been obvious for about a decade now — but because it’s all exploitation all the time. Its bias is clearly liberal, but cruelly so, in that it manifests itself in the bodies of its victims: children, women, immigrants, non-whites, gays, lesbians, etc. But that only makes it worse, because I suspect that conservatives secretly love the show because it combines the victimization of marginal peoples with the systemic incompetence of the New York state police force and legal system. The world of L&O:SVU is one in which white men frequently get away with doing terrible things to people conservatives don’t consider people.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t also watch it. When it’s on — and it’s always on — I can’t stop myself. It’s that terrible. Last night, for example, I watched an episode in which Big Boi was eaten by a pack of hyenas and Detective Stabler was shot trying to stop a man with a monkey in a basketball. Because as we all know monkeys in basketballs are clearly within the purview of the Special Victims Unit. But you need not watch any particular episode to understand its horribleness, because it’s right there in the Riefenstahlian opening credits. To the images!

This is New York City, where all the American crime happens. This helicopter shot shows you how many people are in it and, therefore, how much crime is likely to happen. Which is a lot. Or would be were it not for:

This tough American woman detective. You can tell she’s tough because she has her hands on her hips. You can’t actually see that here, but the camera’s going to pull back on this still image in a moment because this is action photography. Like in a documentary! With two notable exceptions — which I’ll get to shortly — it’s all panning and zooming on still images. It creates the illusion that you’re going to be watching something along the lines of Ken Burns’s Civil War, and in the distant past of 1990, when the style of the franchise’s opening credit sequence was originally established, maybe you were. But L&O:SVU is a far cry from those early episodes, so this here’s a bill of goods. As is the first mini-narrative of the sequence:

A close-up on the police line. A crime must have occurred! Fortunately, a still image of a speeding police cruiser is on the way:

Will it get there in time? Will the criminal get away with it?

He will not! The rapist has been captured! The residents breathe more easily. But wait! Just because he’s captured doesn’t mean he’s been convicted. Might he not get away with the raping on a technicality?

He will not! He and his raping hands are behind bars. The residents really can breathe more easily now. Who captured him again?

A tough man-cop posing in front of a bridge! Note that the bridge and the man-cop occupy similar areas in the shot, almost as if the bridge is as important as the man-cop, unlike the tough American woman detective, who only had to compete with her own name. So what does this insignificant man-cop do?

He finds missing babies! Only not really, because this is a still image of a photograph of a missing baby that’s hanging on a chain link fence. So all we know for sure is that he’s alerted to babies being missing and does something about it:

Like finding them too late. This is crucial to the ethos of the show: the more sympathetic the character the more likely he or she will end up dead. The first mini-narrative was a tale of success; the second, one of abject failure. That baby had to die. Like the cruel god that it is, the show’s narrative efficiency demanded a human sacrifice. I’m going to skip past a character so irrelevant the credits almost do too and move on to the third mini-narrative, which involves the aforementioned Detective Munch:

One of the benefits of looking like Richard Belzer is that you never have to age. Your hair cut and color may change, but you don’t visibly age. Belzer is like Batman in this respect: like a proper character in a serial narrative, he’s always been the-age-he-is and he’ll always be the-age-he-is. But what’ s Munch’s story?

 

A missing child! You can tell because this is a still image of a swing in motion, meaning that the child’s just been taken. What ever can we do to save it?

Identify a suspect! That’s a grand idea! Now to question his known associates, and because this is a suspect on L&O:SVU, they’re going to be:

Prostitutes from New York-that-was. I get the feeling that the writers of the show are actually a little annoyed at the city changing for the better. Much easier to frighten people with the horribleness of the streets when the streets were legitimately horrible. But I digress. What happens next?

Another victim? What happened here? This mini-narrative’s ceased to make sense — which is perfectly in keeping with many of the episodes. The monkey in the basketball episode, for example, began with the death of an underage model before it got to the rapper-eating hyenas and cop-shooting. The narratives on this show frequently veer wildly from their original premises, but that doesn’t matter, because:

America! It doesn’t matter because America! This is one of the two exceptions to the still-image dictate: a full-screen close-up on a waving American flag. What does America have to do with sexually based offenses? I don’t know, but sudden swell of patriotism is well-timed, because:

This man is a cop! He wrote “Cop Killer” and now he’s a cop! Is there anything that can get my mind off this black man on my screen?

Another mini-narrative! This one begins with a photo-negative of a carelessly discarded doll. You can tell by its condition the impoverished circumstances of its owner. Or maybe its condition tells you how long it’s been exposed to the elements. Either way you know by its condition that something terrible has happened to a child. Something like:

Molestation? What the fuck is going on here? First of all, that’s not a child. Second, that’s a dead not-a-child. I suppose they can’t actually show you someone being molested, but superimposing the word “molestation” over a dead adult body makes no sense. Unless we’re to assume that victims of molestation are more likely to end up dead in miniskirts and heels — which, now that I think about it, the show often wants us to assume. Anything else it wants us to assume?

That the police will lovingly cradle us as we die — even if we’re poor black teenagers holding our arms like an addict on the verge of an overdose. These assumptions are getting unseemly, but at least they make sense, inasmuch as the show wants us to trust the police. It’s almost as if they’re fighting the image of Ice T with images of Cops Who Care. Because they do:

Even if they’re all white. Which they’re not. Except when they are, they really are:

Now that that’s settled, it’s time for the coup de grace. This is the Hall of Justice:

And what’s happened to it?

It’s been perverted! I mean inverted! Who can save us?

A bunch of people trying really hard not to move because this isn’t a still image. In the original series, this closing scene involved the cast walking-and-talking in the Hall of Justice. But here they’re just standing there trying not to move. It’s the worst image of a police force imaginable: “We’re the Special Victims Unit, and we’re here to help. Just don’t ask us to move or anything.” It’s also the moment that best captures the “dynamic” of the show: the narrative should be moving, and you think you can see it moving, but it’s trying really hard not to lest it lose the “timeless” quality that allows it be re-run forever. Not despite but because it’s a terrible show.

Just watch the opening credits.

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  1. DocAmazing says:

    When it’s on — and it’s always on

    It’s the I Love Lucy of the present.

    There was a comedy horror movie–I think it was Saturday the 14th–in which one of the ways you know the house the family had moved into was haunted (a la Poltergeist) was that the TV always played The Twilight Zone. By that logic, TVs that always play L&O:VU must be in high-crime areas.

  2. Bill Murray says:

    I’m so old I remember when Belzer was a comic. IIRC he was like a coked up David Brenner

  3. Mark says:

    I don’t care what you say, SEK. Leftist, anarchist, socialist, whatever — I will never tire of watching Elliot Stabler clobber or shoot a suspect. It’s not great art, but it’s superficially satisfying and that is usually what I want from tv.

  4. Jordan says:

    “[The Wire] ranks among the worst shows on television. … Its bias is clearly liberal, but cruelly so, in that it manifests itself in the bodies of its victims: children, women, immigrants, non-whites, gays, lesbians, etc. But that only makes it worse, because I suspect that conservatives secretly love the show because it combines the victimization of marginal peoples with the systemic incompetence of the [Baltimore] police force and legal system. The world of [The Wire] is one in which white men frequently get away with doing terrible things to people conservatives don’t consider people.”

    Obviously the two shows aren’t really comparable. Still.

  5. Ezra says:

    It’s a terrible show? You’re the one who’s watching it.

    • BigHank53 says:

      He teaches visual rhetoric. He gets paid to watch terrible TV shows, so he can lecture on the topic.

      (I should be clear that the word “paid” merely implies that a transfer of value takes place, not that any institution of higher education compensates Prof. Kaufmann with what is charmingly referred to as a “living wage”.)

    • SEK says:

      It’s a terrible show? You’re the one who’s watching it.

      Hence, my confession. I’m not sure what the value added of your comment is.

  6. laura says:

    SVU is bad but Criminal Minds is a million times worse.

    • wjts says:

      I am deeply, deeply ashamed of my affection for Criminal Minds.

    • rm says:

      Criminal Minds is cruel and perverse and horrible and addictive.

      The absolute worst show on television is NCIS: Los Angeles. The premise is that a group of supermodels were told, as a reality-TV prank, that they were part of a made-up crimefighting unit. But then they began actually solving crimes.

      • Keaaukane says:

        Is that true? I don’t watch much TV, but has it truly devolved into that level of da-daist madness?

          • rm says:

            Watch it and decide for yourself. Does any other reading allow the story to make sense?

            If we accept at face value the claim that these are Navy law enforcement officers, plus an LAPD detective, the whole show falls apart and becomes impossible. Look at their clothes, their hairstyles, their callow youth (and somehow LL Cool J remains a perpetual callow youth at 40-something), the hip architecture of their trendy “headquarters,” their boss Edna Mode from The Incredibles, the fact that they are in Los Angeles rather than San Diego and never seem to encounter anything remotely naval.

            No, something else is going on. You have to read between the lines to see it.

      • Lee Rudolph says:

        The premise is that a group of supermodels were told, as a reality-TV prank, that they were part of a made-up crimefighting unit.

        Surely, as supermodels, they should have been fighting make-up crimes (the misdemeanors of the fashion-victim world)?

  7. KmCO says:

    I haven’t watched the show since about 2004, and even then I only tuned in occasionally, but I disagree that the show’s bias is liberal. I think that the whole OMG CRIME IS EVERYWHERE OMG STRANGERS ATTACKING INNOCENT PEOPLE OMG CITIES ARE A CESSPOOL OF CRIME OMG BE VERY VERY AFRAID nature of the show is a straight-up reactionary fantasy. Maybe I am misunderstanding the point of the post, but this show is pure conservative distortion through and through. You allude to that throughout the rest of your post, and even though Dick Wolf may technically be a liberal, the show seems designed to appeal primarily to fearful conservatives.

    • Jordan says:

      It has its moments. I can’t remember too many other mainstream cop shows that have episodes basically dedicated to how solitary confinement is torture, for instance.

    • I’m fairly certain that a police procedural that tried really hard to not falsely imply that the rate of violent crime in, well, anywhere is much higher than it really is would probably not last long on television. To say nothing of the need to add titillating drama, “teh twist!!!,” etc.

    • UserGoogol says:

      I think the idea is that the show (and really, a lot of shows and movies like this) combines basically liberal ideals with conservative cynicism. What the characters would like to do is relatively bleeding heart, but what they actually do is motivated by being surrounded by degenerate scum. That serves conservative desires to view liberals as unrealistically idealistic, but liberals can still look at it and say “well hey they’ve got their ideals, it’s just that they’re characters in a police procedural so of course they’re in a cesspool of crime.”

    • SEK says:

      Maybe I am misunderstanding the point of the post, but this show is pure conservative distortion through and through.

      It’s a tough call, honestly. The format of the show — in which the sympathy is with victims who are, typically, marginalized people — is broadly liberal in the “giving voice to the voiceless” manner. And its decrying of “rape culture” aligns with mainstream feminism, as does its explicit support for LGBT lifestyles. And yet, it does so in such an exploitative fashion that it’s liable to misread by conservatives as their type of show. Every episode’s a fascinating ideological disaster.

      • Gareth Wilson says:

        What did you think of the college rape episode? I didn’t see it myself, but I read a review which strongly criticised it as anti-feminist. Because it showed the police taking college rape seriously, going to great efforts to investigate it, and eventually catching and punishing the rapists. I can’t help feeling there’s something wrong with the reviewer’s logic there.

      • JL says:

        The show is weirdly popular among survivors of sexual assault, perhaps because it depicts Cops Who Care, which they may not have gotten, or felt they would get if they went to the cops, in real life.

        I don’t particularly like this phenomenon, but am also not going to tell people not to watch something that makes them feel better in the midst of trauma. Hell, when I was dealing with borderline PTSD, I watched the A-Team on Netflix every night for a couple of months.

        • Origami Isopod says:

          Yeah, people’s survival techniques for trauma can be unsettling to outsiders. There are rape survivors who like to read what is often referred to as “noncon” fanfiction. Holocaust-themed pornography was very popular in Israel in the 1960s.

      • JRoth says:

        “Every episode’s a fascinating ideological disaster.”

        Now there’s a pitch for the network execs!

  8. JR says:

    Let’s not forget the episode where they tried to pawn off Fast and Furious as a few rogue ATF agents instead of a conspiracy to deny civil rights via POTUS’s carte blanche for justifying “gun control”.

  9. “Its bias is clearly liberal, but cruelly so, in that it manifests itself in the bodies of its victims: children, women, immigrants, non-whites, gays, lesbians, etc.”

    I don’t know, I think there’s a strong conservative prurient puritanism directed at anyone who has sex Rick Perry would consider deviant running through the show.

    • Snuff curry says:

      All of the L&Os are and were like this. The Shocking!Twists! at minute 22 and 48, respectively, always revealed that the victim deserved their fate or that the True Villain was someone “politically correct” audiences were supposed to least suspect, based on shaky demographics. So fucking clunky, you could hear the writers’ high-fiving each other when it turned out the black man really did it, or it was the single mom all along!

      Interestingly enough, the English version (almost verbatim early season American L&O, but with extra aitch-dropping and the occasional gritty “innit” to show you how street it all was) was marketed as a conservative program for conservative reactionaries, as well it should have been.

      • Jordan says:

        “The Shocking!Twists! at minute 22 and 48, respectively, always revealed that the victim deserved their fate or that the True Villain was someone “politically correct” audiences were supposed to least suspect, based on shaky demographics.”

        What? That definitely happened some. It also happened some that the Shocking!Twist! was that it was the rich white guy, or the cop, or whoever. And for however often you got the “victim deserved it” implication, you also got the “Dirtbag!” charge against the accuser and/or one of the principles roughing someone up for the “she was asking for it” claim.

      • Dan Nexon says:

        The oldest episodes of L&O were not defined by “shocking twists.” Sometimes they were about criminals beating the rap, or difficult choices made by the prosecutors, or something worth watching. If only for the “they say they’re in this part of NY, but they’re not, so where are they really?” game.

        When NBC started to advertise L&O as having “the twist” was also when the show imploded.

        • Anonymous says:

          My older son claimed that L&O was as predictable as “Phineas and Ferb”, but a lot less funny. He referred to the 22 minute Shocking! Twist! as the “where’s Perry?” moment.

          • demz taters says:

            It was always just a matter of finding out what evidence was going to be excluded.

            • daveNYC says:

              Or what whacky plan the defense was going with.

              The 48 min twist was usually the True Motive behind the crime, often leading to a Perry Mason moment.

              Do a shot every time the judge sustains an objection and the DA keeps talking.

        • Oh yes, the best part of L&O is playing the “where are all of these upper middle class families with full town-houses on the Upper East Side?” game.

        • The Wrath of Oliver Kahn says:

          The oldest episodes of L&O were not defined by “shocking twists.” Sometimes they were about criminals beating the rap, or difficult choices made by the prosecutors, or something worth watching.

          This is exactly right. From 1990 to about 1992, L&O was a very different show than what it became. Also, the treatment of NYC’s racial dynamics in those first couple seasons seemed – at least to me, the very definition of an outsider when it comes to anything New York – more layered than anything that came after, say, Jerry Orbach’s first season on the show.

      • Depends on the era. Michael Moriarty-era L&0 tended to have more ambiguity about who would win (and who was guilty), whereas especially late Sam Waterston was really frightening in how it viewed constitutional rights as a massive hindrance in the way of an infallible police and prosecution system.

        • SEK says:

          Damn you, irony! Yes, the early Moriarty are clearly superior to the late Waterston, and yet the current Moriarty is a lunatic hiding from the US government in Canada, while Waterston’s your typical Hollywood liberal.

        • Benjamin says:

          And you can see it in the conviction rates over all 17 seasons.

          • It’s funny how the writers misunderstood what made their own show popular. They jacked up the conviction rate thinking that would make up for sagging ratings, but only served to make the show even more stale and predictable.

          • Keaaukane says:

            Thanks for an interesting chart. However, it failed to include the number of not guilties that were then shot on the courthouse steps. That number must approach 50%.

        • jim, some guy in iowa says:

          I break it down into the “Richard Brooks/Jill Hennessey” and “post-Jill Hennessey” eras, myself -

        • EliHawk says:

          I really did like it at the end though, when they kicked Waterston up to the DA’s office and brought in Linus Roache to bounce off him as the ADA. Waterston still got some decent storylines and everything got fresh again. Truly, it was the best result of Fred Thompson’s 2008 Presidential campaign.

          • SEK says:

            The last two seasons — both of which were truncated, if I remember correctly — were mostly true to the original form. (And the detectives from those seasons are on time-adjacent ABC comedies now, which is just weird.)

          • Lee Rudolph says:

            brought in Linus Roache

            I definitely need more coffee: that came across (honestly) as “Lyndon LaRouche”. And it made perfect sense.

      • thebewilderness says:

        I haven’t seen it in years. In fact the last time I watched it was one of those rerun marathons. After the third episode of woman as perp we started doing a perp count. The majority of perps were women.

    • Anonymous says:

      You can see a lot of “victims in fridges”-type puritanism going on, sure. And snuff curry made good points about Benson below. So I guess it’s “conservative” in these implicit, subtextual ways, but what on (network) TV isn’t? On the spectrum I’d say the L&O multiverse is broadly centrist or center-left in its sexual politics – though it is a fucked-up spectrum, obvs.

    • bspencer says:

      I think there’s a lot of leeway between kink and non-Perry type sex. I consider myself pretty sex positive but don’t have a whole lot of use for kink.

  10. Stephen Frug says:

    Richard Belzer’s been going through John Munch’s motions since 1993 has been obvious for about a decade now.

    Since “going through the motions” is generally a term of critique, are you saying Belzer/Munch wasn’t good on Homicide (i.e. beginning in 1993)? Because (while I haven’t seen SVU, that I recall) I thought he was quite good, especially in the early seasons (which were stronger generally).

    • Anonymous says:

      Homicide was a great show, but I think shows like The Wire, Justified, Southland have left it in the dust. I rewatched some episodes recently & although Braugher & Forbes’ acting is still fantastic, it otherwise has not aged well. It’s a good thing cop shows got off the networks.

      • SEK says:

        Homicide was a great show, but I think shows like The Wire, Justified, Southland have left it in the dust.

        Except there’s no The Wire without Homicide. It may be an improvement, but evolution requires intermediate steps, and Homicide was a crucial one.

        • Manny Kant says:

          The 90s, in general, was a crucial transitional period between traditional, non-serialized television and the serialization of the “Golden Age” of the 2000s.

          • sparks says:

            Serialization is much of the reason I gave up on watching TV. Lots of people seem to like it, but it reminds me of college when a gaggle of students would run to the TV in the student union to watch General Hospital (the soap du jour then). If I can’t figure out the players by the end of the episode, I don’t have the patience to stay.

          • chris says:

            I would have primarily credited Babylon 5 for the rise of season-long (and longer) story arcs in dramatic TV, but IMDB reveals that it and Homicide ran concurrently, so it could be either, or both.

        • witless chum says:

          The fact that something was important evolutionary step doesn’t make it fun to watch.

          Personally, I think Homicide mostly plays fine, but there’s plenty of things that are important because they were innovative, but were hugely improved upon by the people who were inspired by it.

          My Bloody Valentine’s wall o’ tuneful guitars, for instance, was improved upon by Billy Corgan because he wrote better actual songs. It’s good to know that Kevin Shields did it first, but not that interesting to listen to.

          • MattT says:

            My Bloody Valentine’s wall o’ tuneful guitars, for instance, was improved upon by Billy Corgan

            All of these words are in English, but this sentence makes no sense.

        • Halloween Jack says:

          I feel the same way about Twin Peaks. It was responsible for kicking the chair out from under a lot of the assumptions that TV was based on, but (as someone who was a big fan of the show even after it started to go off the rails) even the early episodes are a little painful to watch now.

        • Lee Rudolph says:

          but evolution requires intermediate steps

          When I hear the phrase “punctuated equilibrium”, I reach for my … uh, whatever.

      • The Wrath of Oliver Kahn says:

        it otherwise has not aged well.

        That depends very much on which episodes you were watching. Most of the plots prior to the introduction of SuperCriminal Luther Mahoney were taken straight from David Simon’s book, often with only minimal rewriting. Because of that, the stories and characters often had a ring of authenticity that was lacking from the fourth season onward – and those early season shows hold up much better because of it.

        It was once the producers ran out of material to lift from Simon’s book that the show plunged into mediocrity.

        • Shawn says:

          I LOVED the Luther Mahoney season. I think it fell off the horse after that.

          Man, I wish Homicide was on Netflix or on reruns.

          • The Wrath of Oliver Kahn says:

            It was entertaining, sure – I can’t deny that. But the idea of a cartoonish criminal mastermind controlling the streets and ruling the underworld with an iron fist directly contradicted the understanding of crime (where it came from, who dunnit, why, etc) that the show spent the first three seasons exploring.

            Though it was gratifying as hell to watch Kellerman shoot his unarmed ass.

    • SEK says:

      Since “going through the motions” is generally a term of critique, are you saying Belzer/Munch wasn’t good on Homicide (i.e. beginning in 1993)?

      Didn’t mean to imply that, but it clearly sounds like I did. Homicide is hallowed television, but for the past decade, “Munch” has been an autopiloted thing.

      • Aidian says:

        Yeah, hard to blame Belzer — I would cheerfully mail in a performance for the kind of money they pay him. It’s minor ducats by Hollywood star standards but it’s huge money by normal people standards.

        Plus, there was the X-files episode when Munch interrogates the Lone Gunmen. His reaction when he finds out Beyers was born on November 22, 1963 caused like a wormhole of awesome in my little fanboy world. I’ll cut Belzer a lot of slack just for that.

  11. Coronel Arcadio Buendía says:

    LGM: a blog by a bunch of dicks

  12. ChrisTS says:

    I DETEST this off-spring/show. I do not care what the purported ‘Politics’ are of the producers or audience might be.

    I HATE IT.

  13. Anonymous says:

    My wife is a screenwriter and film studies major, and SVU is her go-to escapism show. The sensibility is gothic. Det Benson is the rare female lead who isn’t defined by insecurity or her romantic foibles. Stabler is Stabler. Ice-T’s acting is worthy of a cargo cult. The guest star casting is TO DIE FOR.

    Also, SVU recently highlighted the NFL concussion issue (using guest star Joe Namath, natch), a topic mentioned not so long ago on *a certain website*.

    This concludes every nice thing I can think of about SVU.

    • Snuff curry says:

      Det Benson is the rare female lead who isn’t defined by insecurity or her romantic foibles.

      Her biological father was a rapist, she suspected her half-brother was a rapist, she briefly became the legal guardian of a child whose mother was raped, over the course of the program she sleeps with Dean Winters’ character (fellow SVU dude-bro), a journalist, and a district attorney, is sexually assaulted by a suspect, and is briefly framed for the murder and sexual mutilation of a man.

      Given how formulaic the program is, given that development of recurring characters’ lives and personalities is only possible within the narrow and hackneyed confines of a police procedural, that’s a hell of a lot of gendered baggage thrown Benson’s way.

      I don’t think the character broke any molds by being a rape victim (that’s approaching Lara Croft 3000 territory here) or by having her relationships portrayed as tenuous and fleeting because of her PTSD and “inability” to commit. When fictional male characters sleep around, it’s a virtue or a foible. Benson was portrayed as flighty, as engaged in “risky” behavior, and often disciplined or discouraged from continuing relationships with the aforementioned men because those relationships would “distract” her from the job. Meanwhile, she’s given a lot of unrequited sexual desire for Meloni’s character, and that never comes to fruition, either.

      • Jordan says:

        “a journalist”

        Who was into rape fantasy AND stole documents from Benson, for which she got in trouble for.

      • Anonymous says:

        Thanks – I meant insecurity more in the Meredith Gray sense (“does everyone like me yet?”). I will say that Benson does manage to avoid most of the tropes that female police characters tend to be pushed into, as identified here (a good read):

        http://m.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/06/-i-the-heat-i-s-subtly-radical-portrayal-of-policewomen/277340/

        • Snuff curry says:

          Interesting read. I’ll have to see The Heat.

        • Snuff curry says:

          You’re right about Benson and insecurity. I think that’s why–for all its problems–Prime Suspect was good’un, Frustrating in its realism, and lurid elsewhere. Tennison was an alky who couldn’t hack the domestic scene, didn’t want to be mommy to somebody’s kid, liked her career, had ambition, fucked around, sometimes got burned, was undermined, sabotaged, and ended up unhappy.

          • Snuff curry says:

            I haven’t seen all of her programs, but what I have seen of Lynda La Plante’s (PS, The Governor, The Commander, Above Suspicion) isn’t about, as some have claimed, how incompetent and ill-fitting women are in the police (with their wacky high heels and their love affairs and their distracting female emotions), but how poorly they are received and how exceptionally intelligent they have to be to get their foot in the door. All of La Plante’s heroes are eccentrics, but they’re also visibly feminine (and never overtly feminist), in a world which would probably more readily accept their brains and skills if they were carefully packaged in butch form, reinforcing the belief that competence is a form of and requires masculinity.

          • Anonymous says:

            The American “Prime Suspect” did itself a huge disservice taking that title – it was a pretty good show with a very strong set of supporting characters (and Maria Bello gave a great performance), but everybody couldn’t seem to get past the stupid title…or the hat. They might as well have called it “Star Wars.”

            • Snuff curry says:

              What was with that hat, anyway? I never saw an actual episode, but the hat seemed to feature more prominently in the print ads than Bello did.

      • Mark says:

        I am pretty sure that her half-brother was framed for rape. He was not actually a rapist.

        • Shawn says:

          He was. By Kim Delaney, who screamed “I used to be on NYPD BLue and look at what I’m reduced to in order to pay the rent!”. In another episode he was framed again, by a different cop. For pot. So a racist judge could take away his bi-racial kids. Next season he gets blamed for the Bay of Pigs.

    • Anonymous says:

      The guest star casting is TO DIE FOR.

      My favorite game is playing “guess the perp” as soon as you see the credits, because it’s almost always the most famous actor (i.e., the one you’ve heard of before). If you’re like me and both watch a lot of episodic TV drama and are obsessed with looking at IMDB while doing so, it’s very, very easy.

      Second favorite game – guessing how soon real crime stories will take to be ripped from the headlines and turned into an episode, and what crazy twists will be added to differentiate the fiction from the true story.

      • Anonymous says:

        They’re down to about a week’s turnaround now (I think they did Cameron Todd Willingham a month after I read The New Yorker piece). If you haven’t seen it, “The Good Wife” also has incredible guest stars – Alan Cumming (now a regular), Michael J Fox (ditto), Parker Posey, Martha Plimpton, Peter Riegert, and just about every memorable bit player from HBO dramas.

    • Turkle says:

      “Ice=T’s acting is worthy of a cargo cult.” This made me laugh inappropriately loudly in the office.

    • TribalistMeathead says:

      My fiancee works for Child Protective Services and this is her go-to escapism show. God only knows why, she even goes so far as to yell at the television every time someone asks a leading question (and it happens about 57 times per episode).

  14. Major Kong says:

    I always preferred Law and Order – Parking Enforcement Division and Law and Order – Health Inspection Unit.

  15. Anonymous says:

    James Kincaid’s Erotic Innocence is worth checking out on why we love this kind of gothic trash so much.

  16. Jewish Steel says:

    The leeriest show on television, for sure. “Oh! Just look at this deplorable sex crime! Don’t you deplore it? Look! Look!!!”

  17. Royko says:

    I never could stomach SVU (too skeevy), but I used to watch L&O: Original Recipe (particularly when it featured Orbach and Noth). Eventually I got sick of the mindless formalism and gave it up. What I’ve found is that if I see the body discovered I will watch the whole thing, so I have to change the channel as soon as I hear the Chung Chung sound.

    • RedSquareBear says:

      That’s your transliteration? We always say “doink doink”.

    • Dave D. says:

      While Original Recipe was formulaic, fo’sho, it delved into occasional moral ambiguities and was wayyyyyy more laid back than SVU (also, “Order” sometimes had, y’know, something to do). I was sad to see it go, as I could count on it to do at least three or four interesting things per marathon season.

      • aimai says:

        I, too, liked the original show quite a bit. I liked that it dramatized something that had been unclear in previous cop shows: just how much at cross purposes the police, the courts, and the judges actually are. How much falls between the cracks, how much is lost in translation, how much is botched by one group or the other. CSI type shows and Dexter, for example, concentrate much more on the magic of investigation and prefer to show us a seamless web of science rather than a major cockup.

    • EliHawk says:

      I appreciated the last few years of the show for the ways they broke the rut L&O got in once they settled with Orbach and Waterston. For years they kept trying to replicate “Craggy old guy, younger assitant” and pairing Waterston with various model ADAs as the show got more and more “RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES.” When Thompson quit to go run for President, they flipped it up nicely. Jeremy Sisto and Anthony Anderson had good chemistry on their own terms, Waterston got kicked up to the DA’s office and had to deal with Linus Roache trying to pull the same shit he used to. You had some nods to light serialization in keeping Tom Everett Scott’s crooked Governor (who went from not-Spitzer to not-Blagojevich over the course of the year) and Jason Jones as not-Fox News Pundit going after Waterston. By the time it got cancelled, I was really sad to see it go, something that would not have been the case if it happened some time between 2000 and 2007.

  18. e.a.foster says:

    don’t know what your problem is. I like the show. the acting is actually acting. the scripts still work. yes its a formula but it beats the hell out of the reality shows. To bad the rest of the L & Os aren’t on any more.

    Some of the new shows such as Longmire only last a few weeks and then they are gone again. The Walking Dead is like so dead, Mad Men–yes you have to be mad to watch it. If you lived thruogh that time, you don’t need to watch the show, you lived it.

    Vegas isn’t bad, its entertaining.

    get over it. L and O isn’t a bad show.

    • witless chum says:

      If you’re going to complain about SEK’s post, maybe you should engage why he doesn’t like the show and explain why you either don’t agree or it doesn’t bother you?

      My mom’s been pushing me to watch Longmire, but I think I’m done with X of the week shows. Especially when the X is murders. Leverage was fun, but that ended.

    • The Wrath of Oliver Kahn says:

      The acting is terrible. The scripts are filled with expository bullshit that no actual human being would ever say. And the main characters are astoundingly stupid.

    • sharculese says:

      the acting is actually acting.

      yeah, nope.

  19. Major Kong says:

    Nothing can match the total awesomeness that is CSI Miami.

  20. Desert Rat says:

    Scott, I think this series of posts just jumped the shark. Law and Order: SVU, really? What next, a frame by frame analysis of I Love Lucy?

    • Anonymous says:

      I think “Burn Notice” might cause his brain to explode. It’s obviously a bad show, except it’s expertly aping 1980s CBS detective dramedies (Magnum, Riptide, Simon & Simon), but the acting is abominable, but it has Bruce Campbell, etc etc it’s like the Peeps of TV – you know it’s crap, you swear off it, and 12 months later, you’re binging on it again.

      • Holy Jesus, I could write a novel on the various plot holes in Burn Notice. I think the only show I’ve watched beginning to end with worse writing has been LOST, but those assholes earned their own fucking division.

        Still manages to be watchable thanks to the short seasons, things blowing up, and Sharon Gless.

        • Anonymous says:

          Exactly – also, Michael’s nasal whiny Captain Obvious voice overs (“when you’re running a covert operayyyytionnnnnn, you should try not to get shawwwt…”). Watching clever stunts unfold without explanation was one of the best things about the Wire. Now imagine McNulty explaining it as it happens – show: ruined.

        • aimai says:

          I watched a few episodes of Burn Notice but the massive anorexia of all the characters and the insistence on featuring Yoplait yogurt in most shots just really put me off.

          • sharculese says:

            They seem to have realized that ‘Michael loves yogurt’ isn’t funny, but it took them way longer than it should have.

          • Oh, I rather enjoy the way they manage to work Michael’s yogurt obsession into shit. It’s more the “the CIA can do all of this crazy wacko shit (like cover up the fact that there’s more explosions in Miami than in Baghdad!), but they can’t, say, get Fiona out of Florida state jail even though they know she’s innocent(ish) or figure out that no one has LESS motive to kill his handler than Michael in the fucking first place…well fuck it we’ll just distract you with this explosion and gratuitous cutaway shot of people in bikinis on South Beach.”

            • sharculese says:

              iirc it was revealed at the end of season 2 or 3 that it Anson and friends who were covering up all the explosions and car chases and high-powered firefights, which makes even less sense, but hey look, Michael’s gonna remind you why he’s the MacGuyver of killing people.

      • Halloween Jack says:

        The only people that I know who watch it are people who are obsessed with Bruce Campbell, solely for that reason.

        • DocAmazing says:

          Obsession with Bruce Campbell–is it so wrong?

        • Mark says:

          I watch it because it’s so damn awesome, you left-wing snob you. “Anti-hero slaughters incredibly evil villain.” What the hell more do you want? Also I enjoy the Michael-Fiona relationship. He seems to really love her. I mean really, do people watch tv and just sit there analyzing the implications and shot construction the whole time?

          • witless chum says:

            I watch it because it’s so damn awesome, you left-wing snob you. “Anti-hero slaughters incredibly evil villain.” What the hell more do you want?

            Something that doesn’t bore me as much as the above.

            I mean, I haven’t seen Burn Notice, but whenever I watch X of the week shows I spend a lot of time disinterested and just looking at the plot machinery rather than the story. I bet I’d be more likely to notice the shot construction on one of those shows than on something where the story was actually engrossing.

    • SEK says:

      I think this series of posts just jumped the shark.

      It’s not a “series of posts,” it’s what I do for a living. This, though, should be obviously different than what I do with most of my visual rhetoric posts.

    • rea says:

      I’d love to see a frame by frame analysis of I love Lucy.

    • witless chum says:

      Actually, I’m sure a frame by frame analysis of I Love Lucy would be really enlightening because of how TV has changed and such.

      And ‘oh my god you watch/listen/read/masturbate to that trash?’ is always the least smart thing anyone can write.

    • chris says:

      I vote for My Little Pony. Maybe Scott can explain the Unexpected Fandom. If not, at least it will be funny watching a credentialed academic unleash his arsenal of analytic techniques on cartoon ponies. Who knows, we might even learn something.

    • Origami Isopod says:

      How dare anyone analyze pop culture, which so frequently reflects the assumptions, prejudices, and neuroses of the society that produced it. Especially pop culture that a lot of icky girls like.

  21. anthrofred says:

    SVU is the series where the bad guys are snarly and the good guys righteously outraged, like the original cranked up to 11. But of all of the various permutations of Law and Order, it strikes me as the least liberal, in many ways. Earlier posters have already highlighted its odd blend of prurience and puritanism, but the retaliatory violence so often shown worsens things more.

    I think conservative interests is much more well served than any progressive aim. I can’t think of a recent procedural in which extrajudicial punishment / vigilante justice are so frequently and positively portrayed, with the audience pushed to applaud violence all the while. Hitched to its queasy take on sexuality, the way the show treats bodies is incredibly troubling.

  22. Peter says:

    I keep worrying that Stabler will finally snap and go on a killing spree. I know he had a difficult time adjusting to civilian life after ‘Nam, but I really thought he’d come to terms with his being that summer at Camp Firewood, when a can of mixed vegetables showed him the New Way.

  23. Ronan says:

    I wouldn’t see the show as clearly liberal, the cops are a pack of loose cannon, small time authoritarians. Particularly Stabler:
    A general plot line (used to be one at least) revolves around Stabler and his relationship with his daughter (always daughter) where she’d do something normal (like have sex, or smoke Meth) and Stabler would lose his shit and knock around some kids..and this was sold as the *right* response

    • Jordan says:

      He did the same thing for his son.

      • Ronan says:

        And his ex wife, now that I think about it

      • Ronan says:

        Reasons Stabler is not a liberal:

        Counsellor at the drug treatment centre: “I’m sorry Detective Stabler we cant give you that information, it’s protected by doctor/patient confidentiality agreements and privacy laws”
        Stabler: “You can give it to me now or I’ll come back with a warrant and hacksaw. People will die if I don’t get the records! And you’ll be one of them”

  24. Katy Anders says:

    I’ve never thought about that before!

    In the old days, in the media, if a character on TV or in a movie had a gay relationship, it was a walk on the wild side that would inevitably lead to one of the gay characters’ death. Always.

    SVU really does reinforce that sort of thing – that any deviation from the “norm” is an aberration that will land someone in the morgue.

    The cops will straighten us out. It’s sort of like the Jesuits bringing the blessings of Western civilization to the heathens… only it’s in the United States.

    • Origami Isopod says:

      In the old days, in the media, if a character on TV or in a movie had a gay relationship, it was a walk on the wild side that would inevitably lead to one of the gay characters’ death. Always.

      Yep. It was a rare show, movie, or book that featured a gay character who was not the Tragic Homosexual. By the end of the novel they’d either been killed off or “turned straight.”

      • aimai says:

        I just watched an old movie with my daughters–I’m blanking on what it was–but it sympathetically portrayed a gay man (oh my god, it was V for Vendetta, so not old but I told them when the comic was written which was quite a while ago). At any rate these two teens, from the post-homophobia era already, simply could not get over the fact that Alan Moore had written sympathetically about a gay character so very long ago. “It wasn’t the dark ages” I said, irritably, and “Oh, yes it was.” they replied.

  25. Shawn says:

    Wow. Tough crowd. If you all hate SVU this much you must not watch many bottom of the barrel cop shows. If you’ll excuse me I have an episode of “Cannon” lined up on my dvr.

    • The Wrath of Oliver Kahn says:

      Do you mind? I’m trying to watch “Rockford Files!”

      • JRoth says:

        Rockford Files is an amazing watch after all these years:

        1. OMG TV used to be slow. Woman sunning no pool deck. Phone rings. She gets up and walks to the phone. Slowly. As the phone continues ringing. Seriously, it must be a 30 second shot of someone answering a phone. Amazing.

        2. Dude lived in a crummy trailer. Yes, it was locate don what is now some of the most valuable real estate on earth, but it wasn’t then. And afaik, he never moved – just stayed in the trailer.

        3. Rockford’s cantankerous but not an anti-hero. And a little bit of a coward. Really different protagonist from anyone I can think of in the past 25 years.

        On a related note, Starsky & Hutch is 10X more entertaining than I would have guessed, with a surprisingly strong anti-establishment streak (roughly 50% of the bad guys are inside the department!)

        • aimai says:

          Yes! I just tried to rewatch Rockford files in honor of David Chase and I couldn’t last more than a few minutes. While, oddly enough, Columbo holds up rather well–its stagy and incredibly camp but its pretty well paced.

      • Woodrowfan says:

        Barney Miller rocks!

    • witless chum says:

      I think that’s the point. SVU is the cop show that’s supposed to less icky, but is actually pretty much just as icky.

    • N__B says:

      Given “Cannon” and “Magnum,” I would immediately watch a show titled “Pea-shooter.”

    • Halloween Jack says:

      Bottom of the barrel? Granted, I haven’t seen a frame of Cannon since it originally aired, but William Conrad was a mensch(fun fact: in addition to creating the character of Marshal Dillon on the radio version of Gunsmoke–he was considered too chunky for the role when it moved to TV, and replaced by James Arness–he also was the original narrator for Rocky and Bullwinkel), and Cannon, in addition to spinning off Barnaby Jones, also had a guest star list that even L&O:SVU would envy.

      • jim, some guy in iowa says:

        also, too, “Jake and the Fat Man”.

        in certain ways I admire the willingness to do damn near anything that involved a paycheck. Nothing *precious* about Wm Conrad

      • Shawn says:

        And one of the hitmen on the film noir classic “The Killing”.

        I recently watched a bunch of reruns of Cannon. The best one was when he stopped a faux Manson family, getting the head to repent and the hippies to weep “why do I do such things???” Talk about ripped from the headlines! It was even better than the one where he went scuba diving and got in an underwater spear fight.

  26. N__B says:

    Munch’s twenty years on two series merely ties Frasier Crane’s TV record. If you want quality, multi-decade, multi-title character trolling, the modern record holder is Patsy Walker.

  27. cpinva says:

    one thing I will give at least the early seasons of both the original & SVU, vs NCIS: apparently, in L&O land, the constitution actually exists, and it’s considered gauche to just beat a confession out of perp, their attorney has to be there.

    • chris says:

      Another point in favor of the original L&O: much of the time, the most immediately present authority figure is a black woman. (There *are* higher brass, but they are rarely seen.) She just does her job — well — and everybody accepts it without making a big deal out of it.

      You might think that wouldn’t be a big thing, until you try to list all the other shows it applies to.

    • Josh G. says:

      This was much more true of the original than SVU, though. On the original L&O, the cops usually played by the rules, and when they didn’t, almost invariably this would cause trouble at trial for the DA’s office when their attorney tried to have the evidence and/or confession excluded. In SVU, they had Stabler beating up suspects about every week, and no one seemed to care. And many episodes didn’t even include the trial segment at all; they ended when the suspect confessed or when strong evidence of his guilt was found.

  28. JL says:

    This show used to be bad-TV escapism for me (8 or 9 years ago), even though I was a little queasy about the politics. It was always on and a lot of my hallmates were watching it for the same reason.

    I don’t think I could watch it now, even for escapism, because I hate the NYPD too much – certainly not every cop in the NYPD, but definitely the institution – and the show plays right into the reasons (brutality, dehumanization of anyone they consider “other”) that I hate them.

    • DocAmazing says:

      I saw an episode of a cop show–I think it was one of the L&Os–where the cops had the good grace to be biefly chagrined by the Amando Diallou shooting.

  29. Hogan says:

    A bunch of people trying really hard not to move because this isn’t a still image. In the original series, this closing scene involved the cast walking-and-talking in the Hall of Justice. But here they’re just standing there trying not to move.

    Maybe it’s an homage to the closing credits of Police Squad?

    (Belle Waring once called the show “Law & Order: Creepy Perverts Doing Shit That Will Keep You Up All Night Unit.”

    • SV says:

      I call it “Law and Order: Sexually Mutilated Female Corpse Unit”.

    • ChrisTS says:

      And this is why I hate it (but loved L&O). Maybe it’s weird – ok, it is weird – but I like shows/books about adults murdering adults. I cannot stomach abuse of children. Some sex crime, I can endure. But SVU is nonstop horror to me.

  30. JRoth says:

    I was a semi-regular watcher of L&O when they spun off SVU, and I was immediately horrified at the naked exploitation. I’ve never watched an episode, and have spent the last decade shocked that A. it’s still on, and B. people I know/respect/believe to be feminists watch it.

    I don’t say this to puff myself up or to judge; I’m just genuinely surprised. It’s like finding out that “Id Buy That For A Dollar” is actually being broadcast, and that it’s fairly popular among my cohort. Next you’ll tell me that someone has created one or more mediocre Simpsons ripoffs, featuring more pop references and less empathetic characters, and that it is or they are a long-running success.

    • JL says:

      people I know/respect/believe to be feminists watch it.

      I realize you might not have the data and probably shouldn’t go asking for it, but I’m curious about the overlap between this phenomenon and the one I described above (the “it’s weirdly popular among sexual assault survivors, possibly because it depicts Cops Who Care, which they may not have had when they were assaulted in real life” phenomenon).

  31. bspencer says:

    I used to watch SVU but stopped watching it for the same reason I stopped watching “Criminal Minds”: After awhile I just lost interest in watching people be horrible to each other.

  32. Leeds man says:

    I gave up on SVU because Stabler and Benson were the stupidest cops on telly since The Thin Blue Line*’s DI Grim, and I’m either too old or too young to be yelling at the screen.

    Loved D’Onofrio on CI.

    *I just noticed the other day that DC Boyle was Robert Baratheon.

    • The Wrath of Oliver Kahn says:

      They really are. I guess they only keep their jobs because all the smart cops are too smart to want to spend any time investigating sex crimes.

  33. Dave D. says:

    There’s one episode where the mean, awful, terrible SVU writers made B.D. Wong–B.D. WONG!–say something like “He wasn’t drinking the urine; he was testing it,” and you could just see him thinking “I WAS IN MADAME BUTTERFLY.”

  34. TribalistMeathead says:

    BTW, I’m just gonna leave this here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLkkYcVVYsQ

  35. Woodrowfan says:

    LO:OS was fun before Freddie Thompson became the token RW crank DA. Ugh.

  36. Mark says:

    I don’t understand how any of you enjoy tv, what with the constant analyzing and decontextualizing. Whoa, L&O:SVU isn’t Hill Street Blues? What, CSI: Miami didn’t open at Cannes? Holy crap. If you want to analyze it you have to analyze it as what it actually is and with recognition of its goals.

    • If you want to analyze it you have to analyze it as what it actually is and with recognition of its goals.

      I think there is a post at the top of the thread.

    • Hogan says:

      It’s like you’ve never seen a single episode of MST:3K.

    • Origami Isopod says:

      I don’t understand how any of you enjoy tv, what with the constant analyzing and decontextualizing.

      I don’t understand how people who never analyze anything enjoy their shows and movies and books. That’s boring.

      If you want to analyze it you have to analyze it as what it actually is and with recognition of its goals.

      Nope. The artist’s intent ain’t everything.

  37. [...] chronic insomnia and the scheduling of television in the night’s more obscure recesses often compel me to watch Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. One side-effect of such viewings is that I sometimes drift in and out of consciousness during [...]

  38. [...] say, the opening credit sequence of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which closes in to bring the pain and reassure you that the police always have your best interest at heart, the close-ups in [...]

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