How will Law and Order reflect the reckoning of police portrayals?

Adrian HortonMon, 5 April 2021, 5:32 pm

<img src="https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/JOfgYqeeyRGvb3lLBVw7Pg–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://s.yimg.com/uu/api/res/1.2/aLwGCZ6boJ8E8WWN4BGXdg–~B/aD02MDA7dz0xMDAwO2FwcGlkPXl0YWNoeW9u/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/7b0e663b0304f16bd6510bbe6835a75d&quot; alt="<span>Photograph: Virginia Sherwood/AP
Photograph: Virginia Sherwood/AP

Until last week, 10 years had passed since the last time Detective Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), the gruff, hot-headed muscle to Detective Olivia Benson’s (Mariska Hargitay) empathetic, cooler brain, appeared on Law and Order: SVU, one of TV’s most popular police procedurals. For 12 years, as one half of the alchemic detective duo in New York City’s special victims unit, Stabler epitomized the “ends justify the means” hero cop – the officer who bends the rules at his discretion, who loses his cool in an interrogation room, who lets passion override protocol, who fantasizes about exacting justice on heinous criminals on behalf of innocent victims.

Related: Cops: the violent legacy of a TV show that sculpted America’s view of police

After Meloni abruptly left the show in 2011 following a contract dispute, Law and Order: SVU continued with Benson as its anchor, and in its 22nd season is now the longest-running live-action primetime series in history. Stabler became, for many, the problematic “zaddy” of past TV, a staple of Netflix binges and unceasing cable marathons. His line-crossing vigilantism has only grown more queasy in the ensuing decade, as more and more evidence of systemic police brutality collects in the public sphere. Nevertheless, Stabler is back on TV, on both the new season of SVU and his own spin-off, Law and Order: Organized Crime, which premiered in a two-hour crossover event last week. (Both series are produced by Dick Wolf, maestro of a whole law enforcement procedural TV universe that includes NBC’s Chicago Med, Chicago Fire and Chicago PD.)

It’s a dubious choice given the larger cultural reckoning at hand over television’s role in sanitizing police work, allowing audiences, predominantly white people disproportionately afforded leniency by law enforcement, the narrative cover to look away from the brutality inflicted by police on people of color, and especially black Americans. How will Law and Order, one of the tentpoles of police perspectives on television, reflect a growing disgust with the gap between TV’s fantasy of competency and the reality of a racist, incredibly fallible institution? And how will it handle a character like Stabler, when the qualities that once made him heroic – aggressiveness, heedlessness, violence – are now seen, rightly, as liabilities?

During last summer’s nationwide protests for racial justice following the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Law and Order: SVU’s executive producer and showrunner, Warren Leight, promised the show would address the outrage and the influence of the hero cop narrative. “Presumably our cops will still be trying to do the right thing, but it will be harder for them and they will understand why it will be harder for them,” he told the Hollywood Reporter’s TV’s Top 5 podcast.

“This has to be a moment where people make themselves uncomfortable, where people in power have to make themselves uncomfortable,” he added.

How uncomfortable were SVU and the new Organized Crime going to get? The answer appears to be, at least in the two-hour special (no episodes were made available in advance): not much, or at least, not in a way that would provoke unease with watching a staple of cop-aganda at a time when centering police viewpoints seems less like fantasy and more like complicity. Times have changed, characters say repeatedly in these episodes, amid peppered references to the pandemic and a certain “last four years”. Not that much has changed, though – while it’s no longer tenable not to question Stabler’s brand of heroism, he’s still the hero here.

Take the SVU premiere, in which Stabler’s wife Kathy is critically injured in a car bomb seemingly intended for him; back in New York, he insists on being a part of the investigation despite the conflict of interest. The district attorney, a black man, voices his concerns to Benson: Stabler is too impulsive, his record too blotted with past violations (including six shootings) and too convinced of his righteousness. Yet Benson, burned by his ignominious ghosting years ago and with a decade of knowing better under her belt, still defends him. And so within 10 minutes of his return to SVU, Stabler is rolling up his sleeves in the interrogation room, stopped from roughing up a mouthy subject only by Benson’s physical intervention.

The show holds back on allowing Stabler to actually cross the line again – though through no restraint of his own – but his motives are still presented as justified. He simply, as Benson tells the DA, “cared so much”.

“We don’t do it this way any more,” she tells Stabler after his interrogation room outburst, a theme repeated in Organized Crime, which launched a more serialized storytelling format around Stabler’s new work on a mob conspiracy in New York. “This isn’t your house any more,” his new supervisor tells him, although of course, it’s Stabler’s show (few ancillary characters, save Dylan McDermott’s Big Bad, are introduced in the first episode). Indeed, things are slightly more restrained for Stabler now: in one action sequence, he pulls his gun but does not take the risky shot; his new supervisor Ayanna Bell (Danielle Moné Truitt) is a black woman who takes a magnifying glass to his personnel file. Skeptical of his past use of force (police shootings are almost always portrayed on TV as justified), she questions his integrity as an officer, prompting to Stabler to exclaim: “I was a damn good cop then and I’m a better cop now!”

Bell’s doubt opens up the possibility that, in later episodes, Organized Crime will address Stabler’s past transgressions, or prove her concern correct. But given the premiere’s overwhelming focus on a single mob villain, and the show’s centering around Stabler sans partner, it appears more likely the series will provide ample opportunities for Stabler to prove himself correct, again: he was a good cop then, and doing the good work now.

“You have the responsibility to at least depict the reality – as close to the reality as you can,” Leight told the podcast last summer. There is, to be fair, a trickle of reality jutting into this slightly adjusted frame, but the SVU/Organized Crime debut proves another of Leight’s points: “People watch the shows to see heroes.” All the chastening, restraint and questioning paper over the fundamental Law and Order belief: Stabler is still the good guy.

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