The ‘Law & Order’ universe has provided viewers with great entertainment for the past three decades. It’s also tried its best to be a commercial for cops.
“I’m just gonna say this and you may not like it but it doesn’t make it any less true: The nicest thing the Queen of England ever did for anyone was die the week that [Liz Truss] became Prime Minister.”
That pretty much summed up Last Week Tonight’s first segment, in which John Oliver lamented the sorry state of his home country—a dead queen, energy bills set to be 80 percent higher this winter than they were last, and the elevation to PM of Truss, who Oliver described as “Margaret Thatcher if she were high on glue” because the fervor of her conservatism is surpassed only by her goofy awkwardness when speaking in public.
Oliver’s main segment, however, was about the TV show Law & Order and all of its spin-offs, which together add up to more than 1,200 episodes of television. The focus of the segment wasn’t about the show as much as it was about what the show makes viewers believe. Law & Order is effectively on TV all the time and has been for years, so it has tremendous reach. And from the beginning it has purposefully showed viewers a depiction of cops so rosy that it’s effectively propaganda.
Growing up, Law & Order creator Dick Wolf was a big fan of the influential police drama Dragnet, which gave the LAPD sign-off on every episode in exchange for access that made the show seem more authentic. Similarly, Wolf has always been cozy with the cops, who absolutely love his shows because of how amazing they make police look. In addition, a former Law & Order writer once said that there was a sense they couldn’t paint the NYPD in a bad light because then the NYPD would make it difficult for the show to shoot in New York.
“Which does make sense, doesn’t it?” Oliver said. “The NYPD is famously anti-shooting, unless they’re the ones doing it.”
Law & Order shows typically feature a suspect being arrested halfway through the show and being convicted at the end. Most of the people convicted are financially secure white men. And they always did, in fact, commit the crime.
That’s all wildly inaccurate, even for a fictional show. As Oliver pointed out, 97 percent of criminal cases never even make it to court because defendants are pressured to accept plea deals. Rich white guys are, to say the least, not very well represented in our nation’s prisons. And innocent people are estimated to make up about 5 percent of the nation’s prison population.
Meanwhile, real-world police reforms are often depicted on the shows as threats to public safety.
“It’s pretty telling that even in this fictional universe basic police accountability is treated as an equivalent to getting your balls cut off,” Oliver said.
On SVU, which is currently the longest-running primetime (non-animated) series in TV history, the conviction rate pushes 100 percent. In real life, the NYPD says it closes just under a third of all cases, while an independent study found that number is closer to a mere 5 percent. The U.S. Justice Department is currently investigating the NYPD’s sexual crimes unit because they allegedly not only routinely bungle investigations, but shame and re-traumatize victims.
Wolf has said he’s unabashedly pro–law enforcement and once called his shows the best recruiting tool the NYPD. Law & Order, in other words, is an ad for the cops, and just like any other ad, it seeks to portray its product in the best possible light while ignoring inconvenient facts; before Wolf broke into television, he was — you guessed it — a successful advertising exec.
Is it insidious and dangerous that millions of people have for decades been influenced by this whitewashed version of police, or should everyone relax because the shows are, after all, just entertainment? Ultimately Oliver attempted to straddle that fence.
“Law & Order is never going to grapple with the reality of policing in a meaningful way for the same reasons that Daniel Tiger won’t do it,” Oliver said. “It’s never gonna happen, and honestly you’d be pretty weirded out if it ever did.”