Part 2: The Wolf Who Cleared the Way
Dick Wolf, like many other writers of the 1990s, got his start on the classic cop drama Hill Street Blues. Even knowing that, it’s hard to connect Wolf with a dirty, gritty, and complex world of policing of the incredible series. That show involved dark issues, made the cops seem like real people, made the crime seen unrelenting, and made being upright difficult. About the only lesson Wolf seemed to take away from his time was the last one.
One can blame Law & Order for many things. Destroying the character-driven police procedural (though that may have been more due to longevity than anything else), turning the ripped from the headlines approach into such an art form that by the last few years, you could literally cut and paste a story from the news into an episode; making characters in general irrelevant from television series (though ER and CSI did their fair share of damage too), and basically becoming the backbone of syndication drowning out any other TV shows almost anywhere else. But it’s really hard to blame it for pushing the idea that police were above the law. Indeed, you could argue that Lennie Briscoe and Jack McCoy put more cops in jail during the twenty year run than the actual NYPD did during that period.
No, the series that may have pushed the idea that police deserve to be above the law no matter what they do was the show’s first spinoff. Law & Order: SVU. In its opening narration “sexual assaults are considered especially heinous”, the series seems to be arguing that the criminal we will encounter are worse than the serial killers and drug dealers we meet everywhere else. The deal seems to be made with the audience right there. These criminals are murderers, they’re rapists, and they’re not good people. Therefore, the rules of decorum don’t apply and it’s okay for Stabler to rough them up and for the brass to turn a blind eye.
What makes this particularly offensive is that for much of the series run, two of the higher-ups were Capt Donald Cragen, who appeared in Law & Order’s first three seasons, and John Munch, Homicide’s most enduring character. These were cops who had spent their earlier careers watching other detectives obtain confessions from criminals who were far worse without even touching them. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this as Wolf never cared for continuity of character the same way Fontana and Simon did. Homicide’s John Munch would never touch a criminal, even if he was a serial killer; SVU’s Munch doesn’t raise an eyebrow when it happens every week. And by stacking the deck so that these criminals are so horrible, the DA, which at least played lip service to the rights of the accused on Law & Order, can nod and wink when it happens here.
Now let be clear. I don’t believe correlation equals causation. I don’t think that police brutality towards suspects became more acceptable during SVU’s run any more than the idea of torture became more acceptable during 24’s. But there is precedent for this. The CSI effect has made it a lot easier for police labs to be considering close to gospel in stations and courtrooms around the country. And SVU has been on the air for 21 seasons. It basically runs almost all the time on some cable channels. And if we get to the point where the beating of a suspect can be considered background noise, then it does have an affect.
And I should add that Wolf himself has done nothing to back away from this. If anything, as the years have gone by, he’s doubled down. In Chicago PD, his central character is Hank Voight, who has led an entire squad of detectives into “doing what has to be done to get justice.” And there are very few consequences for his actions and even less discussion. He’s basically a less corrupt Vic Mackey, which is basically why his bosses let him get away with everything.
That’s the thing about having an episodic series rather than a serialized narrative: There are no consequences. If they were trying to follow things realistically, Elliot Stabler would be spending every other week on a desk. Wolf has him out there every day, and the only problems he seems to care about are the one Stabler has with his family. He was eventually fired for excessive force, but that was only because Christopher Meloni could reach a contract deal. And indeed, later this year, Meloni is going to be the head of a yet another NBC franchise as Stabler. So all was forgiven, and now the audience can tune in every week to see him tune up another suspect.
There has been a lot of discussion in the past few weeks about the role of the police in our society, and many have come to think that are certain TV shows to blame. COPS, which may have been one of the biggest offenders, has finally been cancelled, as has Live PD. I seriously doubt anybody’s going to even consider removing Law and Order or any of its spinoffs from syndication. Too many cable channels depend on them these days — I know of at least five that have marathons of it at least once a week. You can’t get away from it.
The police drama has always been, for better or worse, the backbone of the network TV system. Some writers have tried to add nuance to it; in addition to Simon, Shawn Ryan’s The Shield took a nightmare view of the rampart division of LAPD that still resonates with its power today. But nuance has never translated well for network television, and never for very many people. And television has held up a mirror to the world as often as it has been a window.
There have been a lot of changes just in the past couple of weeks to the conversation of how we approach policing. Maybe this, combined with the amount of time that Hollywood has spent in suspension due to the pandemic, will genuinely lead to some changes in how movies and TV approach the police. But the realist in me — the one who sees there are at least three or four new cop dramas every season — knows that quantity will drive out nuance every time.
And I’m as guilty as the rest of them. Every night at midnight, I’m perched in my easy chair, usually watching a Law & Order rerun. Not because I love the show, but because it’s there. Have I changed my mind because of the protests? Yes. But still, it’s always there. And I need to watch something.