Law & Order: The Fuzzy Version Please

We keep our television in the closet. This is not to say we are against or above television. We’re just against paying for it (and we especially don’t want to have to pay twice, once through monetary means, and again with our minds as we try to mute through mind-altering sales pitches). Even in the days of analog TV the location of our home only ever allowed us a fuzzy viewing of most stations. With the digital switch watching TV at home became virtually impossible. The only-ever-on-or-off-ness of digital technology means that we either see an image or we don’t. And we usually don’t; digital did away with the fuzzy in-between. In our observations, the form of digital TV, its material, technological conditions and the way it functions and transmits, correlates to the content of contemporary programming.

Is this on-or-off paradigm a palpable correlative to the easy dualisms, simplified narratives, and clear moral boundaries of so many contemporary TV dramas? Our impulsive hypothesis would be that as subsequent generations of TV watchers become more savvy in the ways of viewing and understanding the media, the media would respond with greater visual and narrative complexity. But the evidence points us in the other direction. If we look at the evolution of a show like Law & Order, which represents a microcosm of the entire cop show genre with its many versions, spin-offs, and crossover characters, we have ample data through which we can observe the gradual simplification of TV. Over the last twenty years, the form has become a parody of itself. If you don’t believe us, try conducting a comparative study of the first season of the original Law & Order and the last season of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

At this point, it might be helpful to demonstrate the reach and ubiquity of a show like Law & Order. An inventory would include the original Law & Order, which was created by Dick Wolf in 1990 and ran through 2010; Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, which began in 1999 and is certainly the most sensational L&O and subsequently the most popular (it is the only one still filming new episodes for American TV obviously sexual deviancy and hot detectives are a winning combination); Law & Order: Criminal Intent, which ran for ten years from 2001-2011; the short-lived Law & Order: Trial by Jury (2005-2006); and Law & Order: LA (2010-2011). Then there are the international versions of the show: the French Paris Criminal Investigations, (2007-2008); the Russian Law & Order: Division of Field Investigation, (2007-present) and Law & Order: Criminal Mind, 2007-present; the British version, Law & Order: UK (2009-present); and, to begin in 2012, Law & Order: Cape Town (South Africa). We also can’t neglect to mention the made-for-TV movie Exile: A Law & Order Movie and the crossover content that appears on shows like Homicide: Life on the Street (1993–1999), New York Undercover (1994–1998), Deadline (2000–2001), Conviction (2006), and Crime & Punishment (2002–2004) the reality-TV version of the Law & Order, which takes place inside the San Diego County District Attorney's office. (The proliferating franchised nature of the show could account for its decline in complexity and substance. After all we can’t forget that TV is about capital, but we are interested in arguing that there are other things at work alongside the quality-diminishing trends of high capitalism.)

It seems like we are supposed to demonstrate a healthy amount of disdain for shows like L&O (and, if we are good West Coasters, the entire medium of TV in general), or at least a recognition that it’s goodness only comes from its ‘so-bad-its-good’-ness, but we come to L&O as true fans. It is the “dark, cerebral, suspenseful” quality, the bad jokes, the “hard-hitting social issues,” the lack of excess character development, the potential for political critique, the amount of languages Richard Belzner’s character speaks, and the big questions that get asked within the cozy framework of a (so-formulaic-it-is-almost-comedy) 45-minute drama. This latter, and most important, attribute is the one that is in short supply in more recent episodes of the program.

Nowadays, like so many other people, we usually get our TV through the Internet.1 The first 8 seasons of the original L&O just became available on Netflix and so we have been looking back, startled at the darkness and the complicated nature of the first season’s story lines. We used to make art to the tune of L&O, just playing it in the background as a soundtrack and measuring tape for our time in the studio. The famous “chung chung” at the scene breaks marked trips to the bathroom or coffee breaks.2 However, as we go back, we find that we can’t watch the early seasons of the show in such a disjointed manner; we have to actually pay attention in order to follow the dialogue, and the plot’s twists and turns. The characters do not (as in later episodes) rehash the entire case after each commercial break. There is a crispness to early episodes; the dialogue is casual, realistic, general, the characters using phrases like “the girl” and “the boyfriend” much more frequently than restrictive language or specific names; and the detectives aren’t unreasonably good-looking.

Season 1, episode 18, “Secret Sharers” is a good example of an early episode that embraces a certain amount of complexity and a real lack of anything like redemption. The storyline includes a murdered drug dealer and rapist; a priest who only yells; a church secretary; two young lovers; a Texan defense lawyer with multiple personalities, belt-buckle, bolo tie and all; and a Puerto Rican grandmother. (It’s a good one.) This is a situation where the guilty are also the innocent, the victims are the perpetrators, and the law certainly isn’t blameless as they manipulate both the system and the victims’ family members as they make an example out of the young man on trial. Issues of class, race, religion, and power are tackled on varied scales of the specific and the general, at the level of the individual citizen and the wider civic society.

There is also the subject of unrepresentability. A viewer sees things on early episodes of L&O that would probably never get broadcast in our current moment. For instance, “Asylum” episode 4, season 2 presents a viewer with questions about private property and public space, sites of major contemporary contestation. Do homeless citizens camping in public parks have the same rights to privacy and due process as those who’s abode lies on property they pay to own? When more contemporary episodes of the show take on similarly thorny issues, they are usually pulling from the past, real-life events and they do so at the expense of good storytelling. The sense of narrativity often devolves into squad room debates—viewers watch as the characters think through the issues of the situation for them rather than provocatively posing questions for a viewer’s contemplation.3 A question is wildly more interesting than a stance.

Recently L&O:SVU wanted to use Occupy Wall Street and Zuccotti park as a backdrop for an episode of the show, an admirable attempt at involving relevant issues, but instead of actually approaching the movements’ participants, the producers decided to build a replica of the park on a soundstage and fill the set with actors rather than protesters. When actual protesters showed up on the scene to occupy the corporate representation of their movement, the shoot was shut down and the storyline tabled.

This is a clear reminder of the kind of authenticity and representability that is acceptable (and that which is not) on a show like L&O, one whose apparent authenticity only goes as far as the visual tropes—the hand-held cinematography, introductory texts, and procedural nature—that they borrow from the aesthetics of documentary. What kind of ratings would they have gotten if they had embraced the fuzziness of the in-between; if they had interwoven the reality of the Occupation—the site, the movement, and its people—with the fictional version of Manhattan’s 16th precinct? Isn’t that precisely why everyone loves Ice-T? He is not exactly Detective Tutuola, partly because his acting skills leave something to be desired and partly because he represents the reality that is Ice-T. In this fuzzy confusion between realities, between celebrity and nobody, truth and fiction, right and wrong, public and private, citizen and society, there is a compelling realism, one that, like analog TV, is just better.

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1. And we kind of like it like that. It makes a difference that the technological module on which we watch, isn’t only for reception, but also for production. What we see and hear moves over the tiled floor of a laptop keyboard. We write on the very technology that transmits to us the tropes of our culture. This read-write stage is commonplace now, nothing remarkable necessarily, but nice to note nonetheless.

2. Also referred to as the doink doink, thunk thunk, or the clang clang. We come to find out now that that sound is a complex composition meant to evoke the sound of a jail door closing and/or the sound of a gavel, and it is made through the combination of over 12 sounds, one of which is the noise made when a large number of monks stamp their feet on the floor.

3. Take for example the episode “Selfish” guest starring Hilary Duff as a teen mom who attempts to cover-up the death of her young child. Halfway, through the episode, the story shifts away from the original premise when it's discovered that the baby died from measles contracted from an unvaccinated child at the local playground. Thus the rest of the episode is about the politics of vaccination.

4. This storyline seems very similar to the case of the Massachusetts’s teen Nga Truong. Who was on trial for killing her infant son until it was discovered that the detectives interrogating her lied, coerced, and used illegal methods to persuade her to confess. After four months in solitary confinement and over two years in jail awaiting trial she was released with no charge.