The spring was dominated by two news stories of global significance: the coronavirus pandemic and a massive movement condemning police brutality and systemic racism. While the former has prompted many of us to find comfort wherever we can, the latter can only succeed if white people embrace and live in their discomfort; acknowledging that we benefit from racist power structures is the first step toward helping to dismantle them.
As the police killings of George Floyd and others have reverberated, there has also been discussion about the myriad ways in which pop culture upholds pro-police culture.
As the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and others have reverberated, there has also been discussion about the myriad ways in which pop culture upholds pro-police culture. And the media we consume for fun plays a significant role. With “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” set to premiere its 22nd season Thursday night, this conversation feels relevant indeed.
In June, in the heat of global anti-police brutality protests, “Cops,” which has been a late-night, shaky-cam staple since the late 1980s, and A&E’s “Live PD,” which only premiered in 2016, were both canceled.
Seeing as those shows directly exploit the very citizens police officers have sworn to serve and protect (even if their faces are blurred out), taking them off the air in this moment feels like a no-brainer. But there’s been far less of a reckoning in fiction, where the police are still lionized, humanized and prioritized to an often dangerous point.
In June, Vulture published an essay by Kathryn VanArendonk that explores the way in which procedurals — which have been a cornerstone of television since “Dragnet” made the jump from radio — are almost always told from the point of view of law enforcement officers. From the various incarnations of “CSI” to the wacky ensemble comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “the overwhelming mountain of cop shows amounts to a decades-long cultural education in who deserves attention, and whose perspective counts most,” VanArendonk writes. No matter how many “very special episodes” dip into the real issues that are fueling calls to defund or abolish police departments, cop shows will always be cop shows. By their very nature, they can’t help but reinforce the claim that most cops are good and that the system usually works.
Which brings me back to the beginning of the pandemic. In late March, it was announced that Christopher Meloni would be returning to the “Law & Order” franchise as the star of his own spinoff, “Law & Order: Organized Crime,” which will cross over with “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” where his character Elliot Stabler originated. Excited for his comeback and realizing that I hadn’t kept up with “SVU” since Stabler was a lead (and, as this new show will have to reckon with, one of the most aggressive, rule-breaking cops on TV), I embarked on a 10-season catch-up marathon. With ambulance sirens blaring past my window every hour and lockdown making in-person, social comforts unavailable to me, I told friends that “comfort TV” was exactly what I needed.
With ambulance sirens blaring past my window every hour and lockdown making in-person, social comforts unavailable to me, I told friends that “comfort TV” was exactly what I needed.
And that marathon did indeed give me what I was craving, which was a formulaic, familiar show that I could just let play. Along the way, I shared clips of scenes that I thought were funny or even cute on my Instagram story and sent memes to friends. It felt like rebellion to let new Netflix releases and prestige cable shows I never got around to sit unwatched while I dived back into a series that many would consider middle-brow or even uncool.
When the protests started across the country, I didn’t stop watching. But I did stop talking about it on my Instagram.
It’s embarrassing that it took so long for me to examine the fact that only people as privileged and distanced from police violence as I am can consider “SVU” “comfort TV.” For many white progressives, shows like ”SVU,” with its focus on rape culture, and “Bones,” with its feminist, science-fueled storylines, have long been given a pass — or at least less scrutiny. And yet all of them exist under the same umbrella. All of them are built on the concept that policing as it exists now is necessary for the greater good, rather than fundamentally flawed and oppressive.
Much like the police in general, cop procedurals cannot be easily reformed into entities that do no harm. The very things that make them “comfort TV” to me — that I can be confident that Olivia Benson and Seeley Booth will always have their hearts in the right place, that Jake Peralta can turn any investigation into a diverting game — are also damaging. These shows make us feel at ease with this power structure, helping us to imagine that it’s mostly populated by public servants doing their best. And yet however true or false that statement may be, it’s the structure itself that is the problem, not the individuals within it.
The current main characters on “SVU” would never dehumanize or harm a transgender survivor, for example, which is one kind of progress. But showcasing idealized behavior obscures the fact that anti-trans violence is still rampant, victims are dead-named by the departments investigating their murders, and up to 9 percent of transgender survivors report being sexually assaulted by police officers.
”SVU” showrunner Warren Leight has indicated that the new season will not ignore the current climate.
"This has to be a moment … where people in power have to make themselves uncomfortable,” Leight said on a podcast in June, per Today.com.
Yet, the baseline structure of the series will dilute any attempt to highlight the injustices of the system, no matter how sincerely crafted.
“Presumably our cops will still be trying to do the right thing,” Leight added, “but it will be harder for them, and they will understand why it will be harder for them.”
In other words, “SVU” isn’t a show about bad cops; it’s about good ones. And thus, it’s not really a place for serious criticism. While victims may get their screen time and the odd systemic injustice will be addressed, the primary focus is going to be on showing us how police brutality affects police.
There’s a reason why no one ever describes “The Wire,” the Baltimore-set David Simon series about how certain communities are at the mercy of often corrupt institutions, as being comforting. It’s not. It shouldn’t be. If it were comforting, it wouldn’t be true-to-life. But all cop procedurals have to lack a certain nuance to be so endlessly, universally watchable.
As the news cycle has moved on from the protests and black squares and bail fund URLs have disappeared from Instagram, the heat on cop procedurals has been turned down — without claiming any series casualties. But as new seasons start, critics will be watching closely to see how they handle this opportunity to at least do better. As for those of us who can’t (or more accurately won’t) quit procedurals, what we can do now is to let whatever guilt we feel translate into self-education and action. With the pro-cop genre still thriving, we need to be louder than ever in our activism.