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.