ED Kain comments on cop shows and politics over at his Forbes blog, singling out Law & Order:
Take, for instance, Law & Order. Most viewers would describe the show as pretty liberal. It’s pro-gun-control, and the characters are, for the most part, sympathetic to liberal politics and causes. But it’s still mainly a show about the good guys – cops and lawyers – vs. the bad guys – criminals – that doesn’t delve too deep into the underlying causes of crime, poverty, and so forth.
I have a boatload of posts to write about politics and entertainment, but I’m not ready to do that, so I will (try, and likely fail) to keep this short.
What’s interesting about Law & Order is that when it got its start, it was primarily known for being a conservative show. It got started in the early nineties, before crime stopped being the big issue of the day. And Law & Order was largely methodical in showing things from the point of view of the prosecutors and cops. And so, by some reckoning, it became considered “conservative.”
But no sooner did this view take hold than did the show take a sharp turn to the left. The conspiracy theorists in me believes that the writers took a step back and saw in horror that they had created a show that was on the wrong side. And so it started becoming more and more topical, more typically vindicating more liberal worldviews than conservative ones. In some cases, the trial was merely a sideshow for the exploration of the issue at hand. However, since it remained a cop and prosecutor show, and one in which everything was explored and resolved in a single issue (making it difficult to explore any single issue in depth), it couldn’t do the sorts of things that EDK talks about.
But while it didn’t investigate the origins of real crime, as EDK might have preferred, it also didn’t investigate anything approaching actual crimes. The vast majority of focal crimes were committed by the upper-middle and upper classes. Disproportionately white. A lot of people look at this as a tribute to political correctness. But I believe that there is something else at play. Namely, white viewers are more interested in stories revolving around white characters. Whether to make drug dealers victims of circumstance or psychopaths, it tended to be avoided except as red herrings (at first they think it was a black hudlum, but it’s later revealed to be a white banker who wanted to make it look like a black hudlum). At its worst, it became dreadfully predictable (you can skip the black hudlum, we know he didn’t do it).
There are other shows that fall into this category. As a cop show, Cold Case is laughably bad. But instead, it’s a window into the lives of the victim, the perpetrator, and people surrounding them both. You could spin a bottle and pick whodunnit, in the end. Who did it isn’t the point. Neither is bringing them to justice (in fact, it’s often depressing to watch characters who have lived perfectly respectable lives since the crime go to prison for an often accidental crime twenty years earlier). Instead, the main point are the characters and, often, the issues surrounding the murder. Typically from a liberal perspective (feminine mystique, bigotry, and hate crimes very often explored), but that’s Hollywood.
The primary Law & Order show would typically take some issue it wanted to talk about and do the same. The crime being the vehicle rather than the main draw. Ripped from the headlines meant taking something in the headlines, adding a murder about it, and exploring the issue that way. Recent headlines involve some malfeasance by a drug company, and lo and behold L&O has an episode about drug companies killing somebody. In that sense, it’s hardly surprising that it would focus primarily on white people issues. Even when minorities are the stars, such as an episode that turned age fraud in the little leagues into a murder story, it’s issues that are more intriguing to suburbanites than the sorts of people that actually find themselves on the wrong side of the law. And the show was hugely successful. The demographics that advertisers love most love to watch shows about themselves. Much moreso than depressing shows about inner-city minorities that lack a future and are caught up in the card game of life with the deck stacked against them.
So in short (except not short – I told you so), EDK is right about L&O and a lot of other cop shows. Except that they’re really not cop shows. Or crime shows. They’re dramas with uniforms.