Race, Politics, Law, and Order

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.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. That’s funny. I remember liking L&O a lot when it came on, but not because I thought of it being a conservative show.

    I remember liking that early on it was almost a Constitutional law show. Each week there was a case where the cops (I can’t even remember who they were back then) had brought in the bad guys, but Michael Moriarty was faced against some defense attorney that used some breach of rights infringement to make a large part of his case inadmissible. The second part of the show was always watching the strategizing of how to get the right results without running afoul of the accused’s rights. (I even remember that this meant upon occasion they lost in court.)

    I also remember it beginning to change after a while, but I had assumed it was because they ran out of ways to make that formula work without constantly repeating themselves.

    Your take might be the correct one, though. I am having a hard time remembering anything but my impressions; I can’t even remember what Moriarty quit in protest of.

    • Your take could be correct, too. It’s not uncommon for shows to lose their discipline over time. The West Wing did this in a pretty serious way. When in doubt, I should probably attribute entertainment media bias to laziness rather than a sinister attempt to influence. Less is more is hard to pull off, and ripping from the headlines is easier and probably just as effective.

      Moriarty is something of a crackpot, believing in some sort of conspiracy against him between Janet Reno and Dick Wolf. Ben Stone was written off having resigned after something a witness of his got killed. The Order part of the show was never the same without him, in my opinion.

      Kind of tangential, but I had high hopes for Trial by Jury because I always liked the Order part more than the Law part, since it was less predictable. But having to fill an entire hour left TbJ on loop-de-loop plot twists.

      • I recently watched the first five seasons or so of Law and Order on netflix (all the Michael Moriarty seasons and one or two of the Sam Waterston ones). Before I did this, I had thought I liked Waterston’s character better, but now I’m much more impressed by Morirarty’s character.

  2. I’ve always thought of it more as an apolitical show. Politics, whether racial, partisan, economic, or even sexual, was always out there lurking on the periphery of the script, but things moved too fast for the characters to do much thinking or talking aobut the political issues. And given that the cookie-cutter script machine extruding a new L&O episode every three days requires showing procedure rather than thought or substantial character development, there probably isn’t a lot of room for the characters to explore “big issues,” because they’re too busy doing the nuts and bolts work of the judicial system to step back and see the forest.

    • I could maybe buy that they tried to be political and failed due to the constraints of the formula, but the effort was definitely there. I remember them gleefully announcing at some point that they were going to start “pressing the issues” and being more explicit in their criticisms of GWB.

    • There was an article on Riker’s Island a few months ago. One of the things it mentioned was that the majority of the inmates were awaiting trial, and couldn’t afford bail – ~$2,000. That meant that neither they nor their families could scape together that much money to keep a man out of jail for months awaiting trial (I assume that in some cases, of course, the family would rather he be in jail).

      (from memory) 90-odd percent of cases are plea-bargained; of those which aren’t, 90-odd percent result in a guilty verdict. In many cases (reading this from something about NYC, but it’s probably universal), it’s normal for a defendant to meet his public defender in the cells below the court, on the day of the trial, where the defender tells him to plead guilty. The defender has a massive caseload and zero resources to really defend a defendant.

      That’s the mundane, normal reality of the criminal justice system. It would occasionally make good TV with a crusading attorney and a sympathetic defendent (or a crusading prosecutor trying to convict a nasty defendant of the more serious crimes, rather than plea-bargaining), but generally it’d be boring, depressing sh*t. If you tried to pitch it to any producers who knew TV, you’d be out on the sidewalk within minutes.

      Somebody commented on the opening scene in ‘Saving Private Ryan’, where the camera is panning over the faces of the soldiers in a landing craft. They pointed out that in a normal movie, the question would be who is the brave guy, who is the coward, who dies saving whose life.

      In this movie, they drop the ramp and the machine gun kills them all within seconds, like machine-gunning a crowd in an alley (or gassing a crowd in a gas chamber in a concentration camp). That was the reality of a majority (?) of the first wave. *Then* the movie went more conventional, but imagine if it just showed scene after scene of that.

      • Ca. 1985, the small minority in New York who had trials in front of petit juries were commonly acquitted (~40% of the time). Cannot say what the figure is at this time.

    • Hi Jon–great to hear your voice again! And of course your encyclopedic knowledge of the Founding and Founders is always welcome and interesting.

      I believe it’s impossible for anyone to be a Christian and not believe in Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection. How is that even possible? Christianity ceases to be a religion and becomes just a 10-step moral way to get through life with a pretty cool, long –haired carpenter from Nazareth with a gift with words, telling you how.

      In short, absent the Resurrection, you have something more resembling a Jonestown-type cult. The short of it—no Resurrection, no Christianity. Reconciliation is not possible. And Jefferson’s words clearly point to him being an atheist.

      This is sad. My hero turns out to be an an atheist. Time to embrace Sir Issac Newton—who is far, far more intelligent than Jefferson. Compared to Newton, Jefferson was nothing more than a shallow, directionless, wastral. Bummed. Majorly bummed.

      • 1. I think you were responding to a different post than this. TVD wrote a very nice guest post on the front page. He reads this sub-blog too so I’m sure he’ll respond.

        2. Newton was not an orthodox Christian, to be sure, but he was no atheist. To the extent I am tribal about atheism, I’d love to claim him for my tribe, but it just wouldn’t be true.

        3. If there was a cool, long-haired carpenter from Nazareth, you could do worse than consult his teachings as a moral guide. Thomas Jefferson did exactly that, and it was a productive exercise on his part. I hope you’ll one day find it in your heart to forgive TJ for being a searcher rather than a proclaimer, and to respect his wishes about pigeonholing his religiosity.

  3. I remember reading something a few years ago that the shift from the more “street-crime” based murders of the early years of L&O to highlighting the denziens of the Upper West Side going murder crazy was pretty simple – ratings. People liked watching a show where rich white people being thrown in jail.

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