I am late to just about everything now because Law & Order SVU has taken over my life. I’ve found myself humming the theme song at work and under my breath imitating the signature “Chung-Chung” sound in the opening sequence. I’m sure this is all just some subconscious, misguided hope to bring some grit and color to my workday. (Ironically, I work at a Manhattan criminal justice think tank.)
And, yeah, I know – the show is hardly new, but it takes me forever to pick up on all things pop culture, this probably being the most extreme example. And while I would like to attribute this to the fact that I don’t have a television, I suspect my relative ignorance of TV shows, radio hits, Hollywood blockbusters, et cetera really has to do with the fact that I don’t want to believe that I could get excited about things that sit squarely in the public radar. But if there is room to repent on my populist guilt, here it is: I am a believer and god damn Law & Order SVU is fantastic! I’m enthralled.
What I think is successful about the show is its unitary approach to each episode. Unlike, for example, The Wire (the only other cop drama I’m familiar with), which is usually obfuscated in complex, referential storylines, each episode of SVU has an airtight beginning, middle, and end. It seems to be the perfect evening drama, an excellent formula for post-work televisual catharsis. But it is precisely because the show is so immediately and satisfyingly consumable that leads me to wonder what this show makes me think and feel and, indeed, not think and feel.
For one thing, I am perturbed by the fact that I am on a daily basis sitting through a show that deals with rape. To be sure, rape concerns me as do many other injustices. But the issue does not singularly constitute any specific interest of mine in spite of the fact that I’m really getting into this show. So I wonder if this fascination is not rooted in the specific conditions, causes, and outcomes of the crime of rape, but instead rooted in how the policing of this form of social deviance enters into the cultural substrate as a way to establish ethical coordinates within civil society. SVU’s focus on rape – understood as one of the most heinous forms of social deviance – is I suppose just the crime par excellence to test order, justice, and their resultant failures.
I’m also interested in the series theme happening to be the show’s title: Law & Order. I think directly citing the show’s focus actually helps preclude it from any ability to work through the restoration and maintenance of our notions of law and order. I understand and accept the need to set conceptual limitations for the sake of the narrative. It’s clever in that it leaves us with the understanding that these are stories come to form the notion of law and order, arranged such that there is nothing left to be questioned because each story is understood as a totalizing action and rumination of criminal justice.
With each episode, we are made to feel the breezy rush of emotions that, I think, exist for the sake of their exercise (a necessity for any drama), but also to placate the anxiety that comes with urban crime. Being set in present-day New York City, I find it interesting that most of the crimes occur in Manhattan, which is just another flourish for the sake of the drama (Manhattan is like Disneyland, it’s completely safe!). What this indicates is that the New York City of Law & Order is more a non-specific canvas for audiences to unload the misgivings associated with urbanity: crime, destitution, failures of civic policy, et cetera. The show’s emotional punch becomes the very social functioning of the series, a sort of regulation of urban pathology.
And to leave on a larger, open note: we know of course that SVU, like all cop dramas, are not about working through notions of justice, power, viability of urban space, et cetera (in spite of their categorical pretensions), but to what extent are these issues raised only to be neutralized and made palatable within the coordinates of late capitalist cultural production?