Law & Order: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver | Transcript

John Oliver discusses the wildly popular television franchise, what it’s been teaching us about law enforcement, and some tricks for how to get to sleep in two minutes flat.
Law & Order: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Season 9 Episode 22
Aired on September 11, 2022

Main segment: Law & Order franchise
Other segment: Death of Queen Elizabeth II, Ministry of Liz Truss

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♪ ♪ ♪ ♪

John: Welcome, welcome, welcome to “Last Week Tonight!” I’m John Oliver, thanks so much for joining us. We’re back, and we’ve missed a lot, from Steve Bannon being charged with money-laundering, to Pakistan suffering massive flooding, to the president of Chile, speaking on the day his country rejected a new constitution, while being undermined by an unexpected guest.

The role that I will play as president of the republic in our government, and which we are going to commit ourselves together with all of you is to define ourselves as a country, to advance justice and equality, and to advance greater development and growth for all of us. And know that this historic moment will surely remain in our memories for a long time to come. They’re watching us from all over the world.

John: Oh, yeah! They sure are! Just maybe not for the exact reasons you were hoping for. Quick tip for any world leaders: if you want people to focus on what you’re saying, try not to say it next to a bicycle-riding, fun-sized superman having the time of his fucking life. But we obviously need to start with the UK, which is clearly still reeling from the shocking death of a 96-year-old woman from natural causes. It’s a big moment, which, for some reason, absolutely everyone felt they had to weigh in on, from Crazy Frog, which tweeted out “r.i.p. The queen, candle emoji” — a tweet that’s impossible to read without mentally adding — to Domino’s UK, which posted “everyone at Domino’s joins the nation and the world in mourning the death of queen Elizabeth II. Our thoughts and condolences are with the royal family.” Which I guess is nice, although if “the world is mourning,” they should maybe tell the U.S. Domino’s account, whose most recent tweet, as of this taping, is “if ur reading this it means u need pizza. Like to confirm.” Get your fucking house in order, U.S. Domino’s, a lady is dead! But the queen’s death is not the only traumatic event Britain’s had to deal with this week. Because on Tuesday, Liz Truss — basically, Margaret Thatcher if she were high on glue — became its new prime minister. You may remember, a few weeks ago, when covering the battle to replace Boris Johnson, we introduced you to her most iconic moment:

In December, I’ll be in Beijing, opening up new pork markets! [Laughter]

John: Excellent. I genuinely don’t think she could have gotten a more tepid response to “I’ll be opening up new pork markets” if that audience was literally full of pigs. And if you think she learned anything after that about the danger of holding for applause after making a ludicrous statement, just watch the speech she gave to her party on Monday, where she tried to pay tribute to her predecessor.

Boris, you got Brexit done. You crushed Jeremy Corbyn. You rolled out the vaccine, and you stood up to Vladimir Putin. You are admired from Kiev to Carlisle. [Laughter] [applause]

John: Okay, a couple of things: first, the UK goes above Carlisle. So that’s basically an admission that everyone north of this point fucking hates Boris. And second, praising Boris Johnson isn’t how you get an audience to love you. As we all know, the way to do that is to have a Chilean child superman ride around you. That’s the only way to distract people from the stupidity of what you just said. Liz truss is now facing a multitude of problems, with the most pressing being the fact that — due to factors like Covid and Russia’s war in Ukraine — British households face an eighty percent increase on their energy bills starting next month. Which is clearly terrifying — and somehow made even grimmer by how one daytime show tried to deal with it:

How are your energy bills? Are you a bit worried about it all?

Major. I’ve got one of these prepayment meters and it’s absolutely murder.

Oh god…

Well, let’s hope it lands on one of those then.

Whatever, you’re going to win some money, so don’t worry, here we go.

1000 Pounds or energy bills, 1000 pounds or energy bills. It is going to be… It’s your energy bill!

Oh my god. Thank you!

We are paying your energy bill for four months.

Oh fantastic!

No worries.

John: Wow, that’s bleak. For those of you who aren’t familiar with British tv, that’s from a program called “orwellian nightmare doom spiral this morning.” Truss has now proposed limiting energy prices, which could reportedly cost the government more than a hundred billion pounds. And many have suggested that, rather than passing that cost along to taxpayers, some of it should be recouped through a new so-called “windfall tax” on oil and gas companies, who have made huge profits during the price spike for doing absolutely nothing. But truss has no interest in doing that.

One thing I absolutely don’t support is a windfall tax. I think it’s a labor idea. It’s all about bashing business, and it sends the wrong message to international investors and to the public. I don’t think profit is a dirty word and the fact it’s become a dirty word in our society is a massive problem because there are, you know, in this audience today we have hundreds of people who run businesses and make a profit and I think that’s a good thing.

John: What are you talking about? I’m just going to say it — 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 woman became prime minister. Because for at least a week, she’s not going to be getting justifiably destroyed for answers like that. Look, things are pretty bleak in the UK right now. This guy’s about to be on all the money, and morning tv is now basically the hunger games, but don’t worry, Britain — your future is now securely in the hands of dollar store British Leslie Knope. Everything’s going to be fine. “And now this.”

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Announcer: and now, Sean Hannity does the opposite for an ad for Walmart.

Four years against president Trump and we they smelly Walmart shoppers that support him. They also hate we’ve come the people, we smelly Walmart shoppers. We the smelly Walmart shoppers, irredeemable deplorable is no better that we the smelly Walmart. Trump voters, smelly Walmart people. We just a bunch of smelly Walmart voters but what do we know? We are smelly Walmart shoppers. By the way, guilty, I go to Walmart. I like to confess, I like to shop at Walmart. Smelly Walmart shopper. I like to shop at Walmart too. Joe Biden is doing everything right and everybody else is a bunch of nazis and fascists and jerks that suck. We shop at Walmart. Turn around and tell everybody Sean Hannity said that your irredeemable deplorable is that shops at Walmart.

Sean Hannity says you’re a smelly Walmart people that are deplorable’s that love god. They say they are proud of it, Sean! ♪ ♪ [Applause]

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John: Moving on. For our main story tonight, we’re going to do something a little different, and talk about another tv show. Specifically, “Law & Order,” the wildly popular franchise that’s been on tv for decades, treating us to incredible dialogue like this:

Do you think that there was a reason that the killer sodomized your husband with a banana?

John: now “that” is acting. Even if I wasn’t listening to the words coming out of Mariska Hargitay’s mouth, I’d know, based on her delivery alone, that the killer had sodomized this person’s husband with a banana, and that she was trying to figure out why. Now, it turns out, the victim’s wife actually answered that question. And think of the funniest possible response. You’re wrong, it’s this.

Do you think that there was a reason that the killer sodomized your husband with a banana?

He was allergic to bananas.

John: Excellent. I love the idea of a killer asking, “before I murder and sodomize you, I’ve got just one question: do you have any allergies I should be aware of?” That exchange is just one of the reasons why “Law & Order” is the king of cop shows. Between all its various spinoffs, there are over 1,200 episodes of it. It’s been around for so long, it’s genuinely hard to think of an actor who hasn’t appeared on it at some point, because it’s featured everyone from Chevy Chase, to Samuel L. Jackson, to Philip Seymour Hoffman, to Angela Lansbury appearing with her lawyer, Bradley Cooper, to Adam Driver, who’s on season 13 episode 11 of SVU, for approximately three minutes and 32 seconds of screentime. If you’re the kind of person who counts that sort of thing. Even politicians have been on it, like Rudy Giuliani, Mike Bloomberg, and Joe Biden, all of whom guest-starred as themselves. Which is a little weird. Although it’d clearly be weirder if Biden appeared as someone else, like a Times Square Ninja Turtle who stumbled across a grisly murder victim suffering from bananaphylactic shock. “Law & order” is on all the time, and for many, it’s comfort tv. But it, and shows like it, have a real impact — one study found “viewers of crime dramas are more likely to believe the police are successful at lowering crime, use force only when necessary, and that misconduct does not typically lead to false confessions.” Which would be great if it were true, but if you’re watching this show, you probably know… It isn’t. And “Law & Order” in particular has become an American institution, with huge cultural influence. Some have argued its formula shaped a generation’s understanding of the legal system. And you’ve probably seen people using it as a go-to reference point, like this:

I’m not an attorney, I watch “Law & Order” from time to time.

My legal experience is watching “Law & Order” and “Law & Order: SVU.”

I think the average viewer of “Law & Order” probably knows that you’re not supposed to do this.

Well, I went to a great law school, but most of what I do on a day-to-day basis is based off of what I learned on “Law & Order.”

John: Look, I’m not saying there’s nothing you can learn from “Law & Order.” I’ve learned a ton from Ice-T’s Twitter feed alone, where he drops truth bombs like “a real nut… Feels like every bone in your body comes out the head of your dick… Say no more. I’m done. Fall asleep in 2 minutes.” Look, the man is a truth teller. If you can’t handle the ice, stay out of the freezer. It can be genuinely alarming how seriously some people take the show — in fact, just listen to Warren Leight, “Law & Order: SVU”‘s former longtime showrunner, talk about an unexpected group of viewers he learned about.

We’ve also found out over time, and this is a little anxiety-provoking for me, that a lot of cops aren’t trained in how to — how to do their job in certain cases of sexual assault. And a lot of cops get a lot of their information from watching “SVU”, which, a lot of police departments don’t have the time or the money to-to put people through formal training.

John: That’s not great! Nobody should be learning how to do their job from a tv show. Unless, of course, your job happens to be “telling jokes to mask your deep-seated feelings of emptiness and existential dread,” in which case: keep watching! You might pick up some tips! So if “Law & Order” is being co-signed by elected leaders, and everyone from tv pundits to actual cops are using it to learn about law enforcement, we thought tonight, we’d take a look at what this franchise has actually been teaching us. And let’s start with the fact that the line between cop shows and actual cops has always been a little blurry. In fact the first hit cop show, “Dragnet,” which debuted on tv in 1951, made a big selling point of its authenticity, right from the start of each episode.

Ladies and gentlemen, the story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. ♪ ♪

John: I gotta say, the surprising thing there is that it starts with “ladies and gentlemen,” as that sounds like the sort of voice that would say “letting your wife watch television could give her notions.” But that claim of verisimilitude came at a price — Dragnet’s star and creator, Jack Webb, agreed that scripts would be formally approved by the LAPD’s public information division — and in return, the show could shoot wherever they wanted, have cops for extras, and use police vehicles and equipment. Which was a pretty good deal for both sides — the show got a patina of authenticity, and the LAPD got a flattering portrayal, which it frankly needed, given that, right after Dragnet premiered, approximately fifty LAPD officers brutally beat seven men in their custody for over an hour, leaving them hospitalized with broken bones and ruptured organs — in an incident that later become known as “bloody Christmas.” So if Dragnet really wanted to be authentic, every episode should’ve probably started like this:

Ladies and gentlemen. The story you are about to see is bullshit. The names have been changed to protect the LAPD because they helped save us a bunch of money on props. ♪ ♪

John: Dragnet had a big impact on viewers at the time, including one particular little boy, who later reminisced about being five or six years old, and allowed to stay up because “Dragnet” was on. That boy eventually grew up to become such a household name, someone once did this to their own body:

Here it is, the words, “executive producer: Dick Wolf.”

Look at — look at —

On his lower back.

Yes, yeah.

The man says he got it because he’s obsessed with “Law & Order.”

John: Yeah. A Dick Wolf tattoo. That’s real star power, especially for an executive producer. Perhaps that’s why Ice-T himself once simply tweeted, “Dick Wolf,” and it got 108 likes. Dick Wolf is one of those names, like “Steve Madden” or “Charles Schwab,” that you see all the time, even if you have no idea what Dick Wolf himself actually looks like. Case in point: that’s not Dick Wolf, that’s Charles Schwab — this is Dick Wolf. Except it isn’t, that’s Steve Madden. This is Dick Wolf. Is what I would say if that was him, but it’s just a stock image that came up when we searched “business grandpa.” This, I promise, is the real Dick Wolf. And Dick Wolf was the six-year-old “Dragnet” fan who then grew up to create “Law & Order.” And interestingly, he actually started out in advertising, where among other things, he helped create this wildly sexist ad campaign for national airlines.

I’m Judy, and I was born to fly. Fly me to Houston. National has nonstop dc-10s every day, or fly me to New Orleans on the only DC-10s. You can fly me morning, afternoon, or night. Just say when. I’m Judy, and I was born to fly. Fly me.

Fly Judy. Fly national.

John: Holy shit. I can only imagine the target demo of that were men aged eighteen to forty who live by the motto “can’t fuck it? Don’t want it.” The whole “fly me” campaign was a big success, and Dick Wolf later bragged about it to the least appropriate person imaginable.

You were in advertising before as a writer.

As a writer-producer, I made commercials.

You made commercials. What were some of the commercials? Would people recognize these commercials today?

Oh, sure. “I’m Cheryl — fly me.”

“I’m Cheryl — fly me.” Hey, hey, that’s — today, that’s immediate sexual discrimen — it’s sexual harassment, it’s immediately going to prison.

[Laughs] that’s — oh, no, it — but interestingly enough —

Seven years.

Interestingly enough, I think I — it was at the time one of the most successful airline campaigns ever ’cause it was aimed at the —

I’m — “I’m Cheryl — fly me.”

It was aimed at businessmen, and all the stewardesses were from the University of Florida and were 22 years old. That’s why they flew the airline.

Oh, wow. I’m surprised that didn’t end your career.

John: Yeah. If you’ve out-misogynied Roger Ailes, the man best known for sexually harassing so hard he died, you know you’ve made an outrageously wrong turn. It’s like someone saying “you look lost” and it turning out that someone was Amelia Earhart. You’re in big trouble. After leaving advertising, Wolf worked on cop shows like “Hill Street Blues” and “Miami Vice,” and in 1990, he had his monster hit, “Law & Order,” which he even gave his own version of the “Dragnet” preamble, one that I’m guessing you can recite by heart. You know how it goes:

In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups. The police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories. These are their stories. Dun-dun.” Now, the “these are their stories” part is really important. Because a big selling point for “Law & Order” is that, similar to “Dragnet,” it draws inspiration from real-life cases. In fact, as Wolf recounts, when the network asked him, “what’s the bible for the show?” He said, “the front page of the New York Post. No writers are going to do better than headless body found in topless bar.” Which is a catchy thing to say, but I’m not sure it’s true. “Assless corpse found at bottomless brunch.” There, I just did it. And like Jack Webb in LA, Dick Wolf cultivated a close behind-the-scenes relationship with the NYPD, employing former officers as consultants, and boasting about the access he had.

I’ve probably spent more time-spent more time with cops than anybody who doesn’t carry a badge. So, I mean, when you meet people, you meet cops, you meet whether it’s Bill Bratton or Ray Kelly or sheriff Baca, you know, there is a shared interest in putting bad guys away and having cops, you know, shown in a decent light. I am kind of unabashedly pro law enforcement.

John: Yikes. Dick Wolf is the most enthusiastic chronicler of blue lives since James Cameron. And while not as formal as “Dragnet”‘s arrangement, “Law & Order” has similarly benefited from its relationship with the NYPD. One writer who’s worked on the show has said, “there was always the sense that if we told stories that reflected too badly on the police, the NYPD could make it very difficult for us to shoot in New York.” Which does make sense. The NYPD is famously anti-shooting unless they’re the ones doing it. In fact, for as much as Dick Wolf brags about how the show is written in shades of grey, or how it’ll show both sides of an issue, there’s one side that it’s always on, and that’s the police. Because however flawed his characters may be, they’re all, fundamentally, pursuing justice — and cops love being portrayed that way, as actors on the show have attested over the years.

Police around the country, I must say, are big fans of the show because they feel it’s authentic.

A couple homicide cops came over to visit.

They just had wonderful things to say about the show and they said thank you and — they were thanking me, which was weird. They felt like they were being well-represented.

Well, my favorite quote from the police is, “keep making us look good,” which is a nice compliment. They’re very, very kind.

John: Yeah, I bet they are! Though, for what it’s worth, there is a pretty major difference between “they feel it’s authentic” and “they feel it makes them look good.” And it’s the same difference between these two photos. One is a mirror of reality, and the other is a lie. And look, thanks to “Law & Order”‘s close collaboration with its police consultants, the show does get a lot of smaller details right — like specific laws, jargon, and crime scene procedures. But crucially, it also makes a lot of choices that significantly distort the big picture of policing. For instance, most episodes arrest the right perpetrators at the midpoint, and then convict them at the end. And it’s structured like this for obvious reasons — it’s a self-contained episode of tv, and those need satisfying narrative arc fulfillment. But in reality, not only do many cases simply go unsolved, almost none of the ones that do get solved, go to trial. Prosecutors put massive pressure on defendants to take plea deals, meaning that 97% of criminal cases don’t go to trial. And obviously, “Law & Order” can’t reflect that reality. It’d be unwatchable. No one wants a show where 97% of episodes end with two lawyers striking a deal in a windowless room, and then you get to watch the defendant serve 6 months, then struggle to get a job at their local jiffy lube. But the courtroom half of “Law & Order” actually represents a significant departure from tv tradition. Because historically, lawyer shows centered defense lawyers like Perry Mason, who tried to work against the system as the underdog and free innocent people. But “Law & Order” is different, and that’s very much by design. Dick Wolf has said, “I believed the heroes weren’t the defense attorneys who were getting these scumbags off, the heroes were the prosecutors.” And you can see that on his shows, where defense attorneys are usually presented as an impediment to convicting obviously-guilty suspects, and the target of lines like this:

If a cold chill just ran up your spine, it’s because a defense attorney just walked in here.

Defense attorneys distort the facts. They twist evidence.

I believe in monsters and things that go bump in the night, jack. May they rot in hell, along with their attorneys.

Oh, let me guess. The devil’s errand boy, otherwise known as a defense attorney?

John: Okay, couple things. One, yes, that is a post-o-c Mischa Barton doing some award-worthy eyebrow acting. But two, defense attorneys are a vital part of the justice system, so it’s a bit weird that “Law & Order” can sometimes go out of its way to present them like the babadook. And again, you can absolutely justify those decisions by saying, “come on, they’re making fiction, not a documentary. Not everyone wants to watch hyper-realistic portrayals of our ever-dessicating society, john.” And I do understand that. But it’s not just the portrayal of defense lawyers where big editorial decisions are being made. One study found that offenders on “Law & Order” were disproportionately white, male, older, and from the middle or upper classes. Dick Wolf’s actually explained his reasoning for why the show’s criminals skew that way, saying, “there are no rich white guy pressure groups. You can do anything you want to rich, white guys, and nobody cares.” And you can see why he might not want to make a show in which his good-guy cops are disproportionately targeting communities of color. He wants people to like them. But the result of all these creative decisions is that, instead of depicting a flawed system riddled with structural racism, the show presents exceptionally competent cops, working within a largely fair framework that mostly convicts white people. And while it’s true that they’ve occasionally done episodes focusing on individual bad cops, or referenced real-world criticisms — especially recently, with discussions of anti-police sentiment being shoehorned into conversations — in general, police reforms are often portrayed by the main characters as at best a nuisance to them, and at worst a threat to public safety.

16 murders over Fourth of July.

They cut back on the stop and searches, people start carrying.

You two had him yesterday, and you let him go?

There wasn’t probable cause for an arrest.

You create probable cause. You push him around, you provoke him!

After Eric Garner and the stop-and-frisk lawsuits, 1PP’s been very clear. Don’t make a scene.

Like it or not, Nolan, the big bad police department is our partner. And in case you haven’t been paying attention, they’re under attack. Every decision, every arrest is scrutinized. There are people trying to defund them, for god’s sake. And here you are, asking me to castrate them?

John: Oh, no! Scrutinizing arrests?! How awful! It’s pretty telling that, even in this fictional universe, basic police accountability is treated as an equivalent to getting your balls cut off. But maybe the best expression of the disparity between “Law & Order” and real life is in its most popular spinoff, “SVU.” It’s a show built on the appeal of having cops who’ll stop at nothing to crack horrific cases. Cops like Elliott Stabler, who — before getting a spinoff show — routinely did shit like this:

Sorry to keep you waiting.

Hey!

I get a little clumsy around scumbag pedophiles.

Why you got to be so rough?

Because you still got one good arm left to break. I should put you in pigtails, you little bitch. Come on, you little bitch, I want you to cry for me. Come on, tell me! Come on! Cry for me!

I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.

Do you think I am some dumb cop?

I had nothing to —

Elliot.

You think you’re smarter than me?

I need a doctor.

You’re gonna need a morgue, pal.

John: Leave will Arnett Alone! Look, I admit, as a viewer, it is something to see Stabler chew up the scenery and spit it out directly into Matthew Modine’s face. Is it the model of good police behavior? Absolutely not. Is it compelling to watch? For sure. Is it hot? Reasonable people can disagree. But generally, the thesis on “SVU” is that the cops deeply care about getting justice for victims, and their gut instincts mean they almost always get the job done in the end. In one episode, we learn that Stabler has a 97% case closure rate. And people love this show. Christopher Meloni is the internet’s “Zaddy,” and you can see why — his ass alone is a pop-culture icon. And Mariska Hargitay has a huge cult following, too. Fans have tattoos of her, Taylor Swift has a cat named for her character, Olivia Benson, and there are even TikToks like this:

Diddle you when you were a kid? Daddy’s little girl? ♪ ♪ [Laughter]

John: In general, I think I’ve made my position on police brutality pretty clear. But I’ll admit, it’s hard to resist the sight of Olivia Benson slamming an asshole’s head on a table to the beat of “Hollaback Girl.” Go off, girl boss! Lean in to state sponsored violence! And there’s something incredibly appealing about the idea of a world where survivors of sexual assault are taken seriously by the police. Hargitay’s even spoken about some of the show’s positive real-world impacts.

I have so many times encountered people that have said because of this show they knew what to do after their assault. Because of this show, they had a rape kit done. Because of the show, they reported and had faith in that. And because of the show, most of all, they didn’t feel alone anymore. And to me, when I started hearing those stories is when I knew that it wasn’t just a tv show anymore. It was so much more.

John: Yeah, that’s obviously moving. And I don’t doubt the show is doing important work for some of its viewers, in between showing her slamming a suspect’s face into a table like she’s a toddler making two Barbies kiss. And to her credit, Mariska Hargitay has tried to parlay her fame into advocacy, founding an organization which advocates for survivors of sexual assault, domestic abuse, and child abuse. But if, as Hargitay says, the show encourages people to avail themselves of this system, it’s worth knowing what that system can look like in practice. Because it’s not good. Government and press reports have repeatedly shown that New York’s actual sex crimes unit is set up to fail victims of sexual assault. Because its case closure rate is a long way from Elliot Stabler’s 97%. The NYPD’s official figures show they only close about a third of sexual-assault cases. But one analysis of cases handled over a two-year period found a closure rate of just 6%. And a damning 2018 investigation into New York’s SVD quoted multiple prosecutors describing improper handling of cases by overloaded or inexperienced investigators, who until recently were only given five days of formal specialized training. Is it any wonder that some cops are watching “SVU” for tips? Which may not be such a bad thing when you get justice crusader Olivia Benson, but gets a little hairy when you get use of excessive force Zaddy. And while the NYPD insists they’ve since improved staffing and training, the DOJ recently announced their own investigation, citing reports that the unit’s officers were “failing to conduct basic investigative steps and instead shaming and abusing survivors and re-traumatizing them during investigations.” And yet, the portrait “SVU” paints of the division is so convincing that when a new commander took over in 2020, in an interview that discussed that scathing internal report I just mentioned, here’s how the anchor wrapped up the conversation.

You know I’m gonna ask this because I’m obsessed with the tv show “Law & Order: SVU,” how real is the tv show to real life?

I can tell you this, the dedication you see on tv with the investigators, that’s the same dedication —

Yeah.

That we have within the real special victims unit and the cases are very, very similar. As heinous as you see them on tv, we are seeing the same thing in real life.

So many of them are ripped from the headlines, you know.

John: What are you doing? Why stop the fawning there? Just keep it going! “Are you really as cool as you seem on tv? Do you sometimes make the car go wee-woo even if it doesn’t need to go wee-woo? Is ice-t nice?” And it’s worth knowing: some survivors have spoken about what it’s like seeing these detectives valorized on tv, with one saying, “Law & Order: SVU” gave me the false impression that this squad cared deeply about victims and their jobs, and another saying, “if I had a dollar for every time I heard, ‘this can’t be true. Olivia Benson would never let this happen!’ I would have enough to cover my hospital bills and therapy for my trauma.” And you should know: even the real-world version of the tenacious, uncompromising Olivia Benson, and the show’s tough Ada, Alexandra Cabot, has a significant asterisk, because a major inspiration for both characters is Linda Fairstein, the woman infamous for prosecuting the central park five, or as they’re now known, the exonerated five. And I will say: some behind the show are aware of its role in perpetuating a false narrative about police. In fact, in 2020, at the peak of the black lives matter protests, Warren Leight reflected on the role the show plays in our discussion of policing.

So, you know, individually, am I doing — am I contributing — mis-contributing to society? I don’t know. Collectively, are we? Yeah. So — so, how do you-what do you do? Can you go into the network? I have pitched the — by the way, I think every writer has pitched the innocence project series to the networks. I’ve made that pitch. I bet it has a better chance of going now. And within the Dick Wolf law and order universe, it won’t be likely that they’re going to do a show that reveals that — that bases itself on cops behaving illegal. That’s not part of — of that — of Dick’s brand.

John: Exactly. Even if the people working on the show — the actors, writers and showrunners — have good intentions about correcting the record, there’s only so much they can do. “Law & order” is never going to grapple with the reality of policing in a meaningful way, for the same reasons Daniel Tiger won’t. It’s just never going to happen, and honestly, you’d be pretty weirded out if it did. Because fundamentally, the person who’s responsible for “Law & Order” and its brand is Dick Wolf. And he knows exactly what he wants he wants his show to do, and — importantly — not to do. Here he is invoking one of the most notorious cases of police abuse in New York City, Abner Louima, who was beaten by NYPD officers and sodomized in 1997.

We’re not there to do Abner Louima. That’s, you know, that’s a terrible thing that happened but that represents one or two bad apples in a police force of 35,000 people.

We’re certainly the show — all three shows are probably the best recruiting poster you could have for being a New York City cop.

John: Right. Because a recruiting poster is always going to be a propagandized, hero-washed version of the truth. A truth which is more often than not, very ugly. And for the 300th time, I know “Law & Order” is just a tv show. I know it’s meant to be entertainment. And honestly, I’m not even telling you not to watch it. It’s completely fine to enjoy it, and it’s understandable to want Olivia Benson to exist. But it is important to remember just how far it is from representing anything resembling reality. As one critic of “Law & Order” has put it, “if a medical show was giving us inaccurate information, we would say it’s dangerous.” Which is true, because think about it — you know “grey’s anatomy” doesn’t depict what happens inside an actual hospital. Those doctors are ridiculously hot, none of them are nearly tired enough, and it needs about 5000% more discussion of insurance. But if those medical professionals were routinely claiming that vaccines cause autism and herbal remedies cure cancer, we’d probably be having a conversation about it. Because that’s essentially what “Law & Order” is doing. It’s presenting a world where the cops can always figure out who did it, defense attorneys are irritating obstacles to be overcome, and even if a cop roughs up a suspect, it’s all in pursuit of a just outcome. And it blasts that fantasy at you in endless reruns and marathons, in the guise of very well-produced tv. But underneath it all, it’s a commercial, produced by a man who is, in his words, “unabashedly pro-law enforcement,” and is very good at selling things. And in this instance, he’s selling a complete fantasy that many people in this country are only too happy to buy. Which is fine — as long as we don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s an ad for a defective product. Because, if I may quote one last time from the library of Alexandria that is ice-t’s twitter account, “you gotta know who the f you’re dealing with. Could be the cops.”

That’s our show. Thanks so much for watching. And given tonight’s story, there’s only one way to end it, and that’s this.

[Dun-dun]

[cheers and applause]

♪ ♪

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