When to Stop Watching ‘Law & Order: SVU’

This article must address two aspects of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, ideology and quality. Each will produce a different answer to the titular question, and we will begin with the first, being the most important.

SVU can evoke mixed emotions these days. On the one hand, it is addictively cathartic to see rapists and domestic abusers experience the harsh hand of justice (or Elliot Stabler) over and over again. On the other, the show glorifies the police and offers a distorted view of the criminal justice system. John Oliver had a good exposé on this recently, highlighting studies that show consumers of crime dramas have rosier views of the police. Others have drawn attention to the literature as well, criticizing the erasure of racism, miserable clearance rates, apathy or neglect, and other real-world problems. The research on SVU alone is growing quite sizable. At the same time, it has been found viewers of SVU better understand, on average, the meaning of consent, sexual assault, and more. In Oliver’s piece, actress Mariska Hargitay speaks of fans being inspired by the show to report, to take rape kits, and so on. She writes elsewhere: “Normally, I’d get letters saying ‘Hi, can I please have an autographed picture,’ but now it was different: ‘I’m fifteen and my dad has been raping me since I was eleven and I’ve never told anyone.’ I remember my breath going out of me when the first letter came, and I’ve gotten thousands like it since then. That these individuals would reveal something so intensely personal—often for the very first time—to someone they knew only as a character on television demonstrated to me how desperate they were to be heard, believed, supported, and healed.” Hargitay started a foundation to educate the public on sex crimes and push police departments to actually test their rape kits (yes, at times meaning advocating more funding). All this is to say that the impact of SVU is complex, therefore the discussion must be nuanced.

Of course, Oliver’s conclusion was a bit confused: “Honestly, I am not even telling you not to watch it. It’s completely fine to enjoy it.” This holds only if one determines the show’s negative real-world effects are rather unserious. Obviously, it is views that keep a series going. Millions of regular viewers are why Olivia Benson remains the longest-running live-action character in primetime television history, why SVU is the lengthiest live-action show in primetime history. Others have called for Hargitay to blow up the show by quitting or for all police shows to be cancelled. This is the moral question for us Leftists and our favorite copaganda. Is the series doing enough damage to public perception for me to stop watching? Enough to warrant cancellation? This is not so easy to answer, the extent of the harm. Cop shows may attract people who already have a rosier view of the police, impacting various studies, in addition to creating such views (in the same way, SVU may attract those with pre-existing higher understandings of sexual assault, alongside having an effect on others). These differences can be difficult to parse out. Yet even where correlational direction is clearly established, finding the show guilty of perspective creation far more than facilitation or reinforcement (admittedly, a problem in itself, to a lesser degree), then the real challenge arises. Answering the question that matters most. Is the series doing enough damage to actually delay or prevent crucial police reforms? Or abolition, if that is your philosophy. The instinctive answer is yes. How could more favorable views of law enforcement not hinder reform efforts? But, like demonstrating the extent that copaganda is increasing popular devotion to the police, the extent that this devotion would actually prevent the sweeping changes to policing necessary for a more decent society remains unclear. One needs sufficient evidence, serious research that this writer is unsure exists. At this stage, we have a vague understanding that these shows spread positive, unrealistic views of the criminal justice system, which theoretically could make public policy changes harder to pass — but it could turn out that the effects, regarding both points, are too minimal to warrant much concern. We might cancel cop shows and have virtually no impact, longterm or otherwise, on conservative ideology, which emerges from and is maintained by many sources. We do not know.

This means that each person must choose for herself. We need more nuance than Oliver provided, though the solution is about as ambiguous. If you imagine the show is meaningfully stalling social change, the answer to the headline is obvious: stop watching immediately. It is not “completely fine” to continue. But if you suspect that reforms (or abolition) will be about as difficult to win with or without the existence of SVU, or change behavior based only on sufficient evidence, keeping Detective Benson as a guilty pleasure is not such a big deal. Either path could be correct, given our limited knowledge at this time. Personally, as may be obvious, I somewhat question the efficacy of cop shows delaying social change, but acknowledge this serves nostalgia and bias (freeing me to continue watching without guilt) and may not be the most moral position (why risk a delay of any kind, with black folk being murdered in the streets for no reason?), which pushes me in the other direction. I wrestle with this, but my doubts have not yet allowed for a goodbye. No serious advice can be offered here — no “stop watching” or “enjoy.” Whether you earnestly think all this is doing serious societal harm will determine your answer.

This will help answer other questions, too, such as Is it hypocritical to be a leftwing critic of the police while enjoying copaganda? Or Does a negative impact on viewers affect whether Mariska Hargitay can be called one of the greatest, if not the greatest, female leads in television history? And, perhaps naively, Could these fictions be reframed in the public mind as aspirational? In other words, real-world policing is dreadful, what reforms can we pass to make it more like a televised ideal? (No, SVU is not actually ideal or the best model in any fashion, simply a tiny step up in a few ways, with officers who care, justice that’s done, racism under control, bad cops intolerable and locked away, etc.) One’s answers to these things depend on how powerful the medium is judged to be.

For those who are still watching, in more than one sense, we can turn to quality (more like my piece When to Stop Watching ‘The Walking Dead’), a much shorter discussion that includes a couple spoilers.

In my view, SVU was a well-made show for an exceptionally long time. Even after Stabler vanished after season 12, the Amaro, Barba, and Carisi era was not to be missed. The writing, of both story and dialogue, remained compelling, as did the acting. The viewer’s cycle of tears, rage, and satisfaction was as powerful as ever. Of course, the show’s attempts to tackle race in 2013, around the beginning of Black Lives Matter, were predictably disastrous (Reverend Curtis Scott is the new black pastor character who represents both fictional and real-world hyperbolic protesters foolishly questioning police decisions), about as painfully cringe-inducing as the Brooklyn Nine-Nine try at blending comedy, lovable goofball cops, and serious criticism of racial injustice in its final season. Beyond this, and the fact that practically everyone Olivia Benson knows is revealed to be a rapist, seasons 14 through 17 remain highly watchable. Season 18 offers new opportunities to relive trauma, running in 2016-2017 and copy-pasting horrific events from the Trump era, of course without saying his name, such as the wave of hate crimes that occurred after his election. I wish I had stopped watching after season 17. In the finale a character dies and there is a gut-wrenching funeral scene; let the show be buried there. I did not care to experience various Trump headlines again. Season 18 does maintain its quality, however, so it might be worth it to some. But go no further!

In season 19, everything begins to go wrong. The dialogue and acting feel slightly off, as if they took a 5% hit in quality. It’s not huge, but it gnaws at you. The story writing really starts to slide. Benson’s son is nearly taken away from her due to a custodial fight, nearly taken away from her due to a bruise on his arm, and then finally is taken away from her in a kidnapping, all in the space of some 10 episodes! It all has a more melodramatic, soap opera vibe. The rest of the outings begin to feel a bit repetitive, too, despite a slight shift to the personal lives of the main characters — after nearly two decades of episodes, that happens. Barba leaves, which is almost as sad as his entirely unconvincing, lifeless near-relationship with Benson (the idea that Barba isn’t gay is absurd). I quit before the season was over, wishing I had earlier. From what I hear, the situation has only gotten worse.

SVU has just been renewed for a 25th season.

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