Series on Serial Killers on TV, Part 3: In the Criminal Justice System, You Have Be A Monster to Catch One
How Dick Wolf Used Serial Killers and Sexual Predators To Demonstrate The Worst Parts of Humanity on Either Side of the Law
(Note: In a recent Last Week Tonight, John Oliver related how the flaws in Law and Order have reflected on how the world views policing and the fallacies within them. I will do the best I can not to reiterate his original argument, which I couldn’t find a flaw in.)
For a series that was on the air for twenty years in its original run, it’s kind of surprising in retrospect that the original Law and Order had so few serial killers. While I can’t state this with any certainly, I think the number of episodes averaged out to barely one per season and that’s mainly because the series doubled down on them in the last ten years. Perhaps Wolf and his writers were sticking somewhat close to reality when the acknowledged that serial killers wasn’t as big a problem as the media seemed to think.
I only recall two during the first four years — Michael Moriarty’s time on the series before he was replaced by Sam Waterston. ‘Vengeance’ actually demonstrates how measured a tone the series took in its early year — there were three killings of young women, the detectives had to work to find the connection, the lengthy interrogation of the murderer was eventually tossed out by the killer’s clever attorney and when asked to arrange things so that the killer might face the death penalty in another state (New York didn’t bring the death penalty back until 1995) Ben Stone (Moriarty) refused to go along with it because he believed that it wasn’t the state’s job to kill people. For the record, Stone was as willing to push the boundaries of the law as far as he could but compared to all his fellow prosecutors he was ‘soft on crime’.
Much of the cases dealing with serial killers fundamentally were more about punishment than anything else and could often be shown as flaws in the law. In ‘Trophy’, an arrest of a man who has killed two young boys is revealed not someone copying a former killer, someone Jack McCoy (Waterston) put away five years earlier, but the actual killer. Eventually we learn that McCoy’s former assistant — and former lover — withheld exculpatory evidence with the understanding that’s how Jack did business. The attorney is prosecuted and at no time does Jack express any remorse — or responsibility for what transpired. There are no consequences for him either, and McCoy over the next decade becomes the prime example of a prosecutor who is willing to do anything to the law to get his man. (I’ve gone over some of these examples before, so I won’t repeat myself here unless it’s pertinent.)
And even with these monsters, none of the detectives or attorneys treated them as if they were any worse than the other killers they were tracking down. The same can not be said of Law and Order: SVU. However, before I go into its flaws, I have to make a critical argument with the entire concept of the spin-off.
First of all, and I don’t think this needs to be said, it’s not like the original Law and Order had no rapes or sexual assault cases in its first decade. Hell, there were more of them then serial killers. And I have to tell, the approach the series took was far more realistic than the spinoff ever did. By which I mean, these mostly male detectives and attorneys barely believe any of the accusations.
In ‘Out of the Half-Light’, an African-American teenager accuses white cops of raping her. The detectives and attorneys eventually find out this is the phony claim of an Al Sharpton like politician who wants to use the girl to expose the rot in the police department. In ‘The Violence of Summer’, Stone does not believe that two criminals (one a very young Philip Seymour Hoffman) are responsible for the rape and assault of a reporter, whose sex life disgusts him. This trend of male detectives and attorneys not believing female victims goes on throughout the first decade, but in many ways the best example of this is ‘Helpless’ in Season 3.
Dr. Olivet (Carolyn McCormick) is sexually assaulted by her gynecologist. When she goes to Logan and Ceretta (Chris Noth and the late Paul Sorvino) they are given some leeway to investigate, but even knowing the victim makes the brass reluctant to pursue — it’s just not enough of a crime. Eventually, they discover a pattern of molestation but when the cops decide not to pursue it, Olivet takes measures in to her own hands, planning to record his next assault. Instead, she is anesthetized and raped. Even after this the detectives bemoan her common sense (“She’s a PhD!” Ceretta says) and its only after Stone is convinced by Ceretta — not Olivet — that he prosecutes. The doctors’ attorney (Tovah Feldshuh in the first of what would be series of brilliant guest appearances) has no problem making Olivet’s experience into a voluntary encounter, no matter what the evidence might suggest. The doctor is convicted, but the judge throws out the verdict saying it’s based on ‘emotion, not evidence.”
The doctor is finally convicted — and he is a monster. Eventually its revealed that he has raped or molested nearly sixty women over the years. But it is very telling that as soon as the case is done, everyone else except Olivet is allowed to move on. In an episode not long after called ‘Point of View’, a woman accused of killing a man she says was threatening to rape her convinces Olivet that she was justified. Stone decides not to use her, but the defense does. Adam Schiff (Steven Hill) usually restrained says that they have to go after Olivet’s credibility, which means using her past rape as a bias against her being impartial. Ben hesitates about doing this, saying they need to tell her, but acquiesces and has no problem raking Olivet over the coals to win. The fact that the so-called victim is lying does not change the fact that the male prosecutor wanted to use a sexual assault to attack a woman’s credibility. Nor was it something that would be forgotten with time: more than fifteen years in a case where Olivet was again testifying for the defense, Jack was more than willing to attack her credibility not just by using her previous assault but her past sexual history.
So from the beginning the opening narrative at the beginning of every episode of Law and Order: SVU — “sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous’ — is a lie that the original series had spent the better part of nine years demonstrating. So the question now becomes: why was SVU created at all, other than to express the worst elements in humanity?
To explain, a little history. Way back in 1999, when SVU began Wolf and his writers were considering the show to be more character driven than the original. In the first season we learned far more about the characters than we ever did anybody in the original franchise. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) was the product of a rape. Eliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni, told you we’d get back to him) was a happily married father of four. Brian Cassidy (Dean Winters, who got out when the getting was good) was a rookie detective still trying to figure out the ins and outs of sexual deviancy: at one point, we opened an episode with him and Olivia in bed together.
The problem is, Wolf was never good at character development. He’d tried a version of it in the eighth season of Law and Order and it was so haphazard and scattershot that he basically abandoned it after that. He would end up doing the same at the beginning of Season 2, introducing a female prosecutor (there had been no trials in the first season) and basically changing the format to a far closer version of what had made the original a smash. You can’t deny it was effective but look at what the show is about.
Because let’s not kid ourselves: SVU is all about brutality and the basest instinct of humanity in every form. At its core, the show is about violence towards women and every possible perversion that can happen to them. Occasionally they will throw in abuse of children, and every so often they’ll deal with violation of a man, but if you’re an actress and you have a guest shot on Law and Order: SVU, the best case scenario is that you’ve been brutally raped by a powerful man and nobody but the detectives believe you, even though they are picking apart of every element of your story when you’re not in the room or even when you are. If you’re dead, you might get more respect but only if there are a lot of other previous victims. (In all honesty, the prostitutes on Deadwood got more respect than any of the ones we’ve ever seen on SVU. That’s sad.)
And if you are a monster, if you’ve raped and killed multiple women — or honestly, even if they merely think you have — well, God help you if you end up in their interrogation room. Because it’s only a matter of minutes before Elliot Stabler is beating you to a pulp and is pulled off by Benson after a minute or two.
I don’t think its entirely a coincidence that the level of police violence in SVU (and Chicago PD) arose with the arrival of the War on Terror. If it were just a case of ends justifying the means — a questionable concept that the flagship series was at least willing to consider — than it would be bad enough. But honestly, the fact that Stabler got away with what he did for so long speaks to a level of misogyny within the department.
In the first season finale, the detectives all met with a department shrink (Audra McDonald). All the detectives had flash signs, but none more troubling than Stabler, who told the doctor with no hesitation how much he wanted to track down some paroled felons and kill them. At the end of the episode, the cliffhanger occurred when the shrink said one of the detectives needed to leave the department. The obvious selection was Stabler but it turned out being Monique Jefferies (Michelle Hurd, who went on to have a superb career in television) who had mentioned that she had seen someone she knew was a sex offender at a bar — and went home with him.
To be clear: a detective who fantasized about killing offenders and criminals was not only allowed to stay at his job, but his lieutenant (Dann Florek) went before the board and argued that his desire was acceptable behavior given the nature of the criminals. But when it came to a female detective who had a questionable sex life, that same lieutenant transferred it out, making the argument that this was a slow motion method of ‘eating her gun’. No one at the time or even years after the fact even seems to have blinked at this blatant sexism. I noticed the unfairness of it at the time and was one of the reasons I stopped watching the series after Season 2.
I think the blatant sexism in the cast of SVU is another argument about the treatment of women in general. Yes, I know Mariska Hargitay has been there for twenty four years and is now running the squad. Would it shock you to know that from the departure of Hurd in early season 2, there were no female detectives on the series until Kelli Giddish joined the cast in 2007 — and remains to date, the only one. The message is pretty clear. To understand crimes primarily against woman, you must be a man.
This is a message that recurs throughout much of the bits and pieces of the series first ten seasons (I’m going to let that stand as a big enough sample size) in addition to prosecution. Stephanie March and Diane Neal alternated as prosecutors the first decade of the shows run, and they were considered so interchangeable that when Neal left March ended up replacing her, even though her character had supposedly left New York to go in witness protection. (Wolf’s never sweated the details about these things.) Other prosecutors would burn out very quickly, even when played by such exceptional talents as Christine Lahti, Debra Messing or Sharon Stone. The job is currently being held by Rafael Barba. Very clear: the only people who handle crimes against women effectively must have a penis. Hargitay has held her job more because she’s considered ‘one of the boys’ than her real accomplishments.
This is the problem that has been at the core of SVU since its foundation, and why it is the worst violator of the idea of the predator. It’s not just that it glorifies brutality, both against the victims and the perpetrator, its that it fundamentally sees no reason to change and argues that it never has too. The killers are monsters, we do get that by now, but they are given more time and energy on the series than the victims themselves. That is the lie that is in the title: the victims have never been special to the writers that are supposed to be telling their story.
Now some of you may think that I have spent so much time dwelling on Law and Order: SVU that this is strictly on critique on this series alone. The thing is, if you spend enough time among the procedurals — such as Criminal Minds, Bones, FBI et all — you notice that there is no difference between them in this regard. The villains are given exponentially more time than they are worthy of and the heroes do whatever is necessary to catch them. Only the methods differed from show to show, and often that has more to do with the network or producer than the general opinion of serial killers. The victims — and the ones left behind — are irrelevant to the process. Of course, anyone who has spent time in Peak TV knows the sole exception, and I will deal with him and the series he was the subject of when I end this series of articles.