Dick Wolf's Abject Theory of Justice

Dick Wolf’s Abject Theory of Justice

Law & Order isn’t about the crime. It’s about the punishment.

So those of you who are habitual readers know that Wrather and Sheely have a podcast on this site called “These Flirting Teenagers,” which purports to be about Glee and Gossip Girl.  Those of you who actually listen to said podcast know that almost as much of their time is devoted to talking about Law and Order: SVU.  Or rather, making one particular point about it:  that what the show is meant to be about—i.e. Law and Order—is not what it is actually about, which is the vicarious enjoyment of forbidden sexuality.  One of Wrather’s more elegant ways of getting at it is to claim that “We go to entertainment to see things we secretly wish we could do… if you are watching [SVU], you want the cheerleader to be raped.  If you were not happy with a representation of the adorable nubile cheerleader being raped, you would turn off the show.”

I can understand why he would think this.  What separates SVU from “vanilla” Law & Order is the fact that it wallows in a kind of crime that is, per the opening narration, “especially heinous.”  If we weren’t interested in something about the representation of those crimes, the show would not find an audience.  And if you pay attention to the casting choices… well, there’s kind of an unspoken law for casting directors in America, which is that—barring extraordinary circumstances—any actor or actress cast on a TV show shall be wicked hawt.  This applies for SVU as much as for any other show if not more.  And whether it’s intentional or not, this means that the actress who will portray the victim of a sex crime is going to be chosen partially so that she can serve as a desire-object.  So Wrather’s argument seems to make sense.  But there are three problems with it.

1)  If everything on SVU other than the illicit sex is just a pretext, then we should expect to see an overwhelming diversity of pretexts.

Consider another argument with the same formula: “Well, people enjoy BLTs, but the lettuce and tomatoes are just a veneer, therefore, people must get BLTs because of the bacon.”  If you carry it through to the implied conclusion—that people would really prefer to just get a stack of bacon on bread, no veggies, mayo optional—it flies in the face of our actual experience. While the lettuce and tomato are definitely subordinate elements of the sandwich, that doesn’t mean that they are optional: anyone who’s had a really well done BLT knows that the vegetables are integral to the experience.  And there is, after all, a reason why BLTs are available everywhere, and the Bacon, Bean-Sprout, and Cilantro sandwich (which I just now made up) is available nowhere.

Why are there no shows about an escort service that specializes in abduction fantasies, with the audience’s pretext being that “it wasn’t really rape”?  Or hell, take the episode of Glee where Rachel develops a crush on Mr. Schue.  This is still a representation of illicit sex (if a rather sublimated one), where the pretext is that “nothing really happened.”  Before you accuse me of arguing against myself, note that this was just one episode of a single show, while SVU is an entire series.  Show me an entire series about a high school teacher flirting with his students but never actually doing anything, and then we’ll talk.  Until then, Occam’s Razor dictates that we assume that SVU’s specific “pretext” is crucial to its success, which stretches the definition of pretext more than a bit.

2)  If illicit sex is the real point of Law & Order SVU, shouldn’t we expect it to appear in every episode?

The bacon analogy works nicely because bacon, like illicit sex, is something that many people are fascinated by, but know they should not really be having.  However, not all sandwiches are BLTs, and not all episodes of SVU are about sex.  Some are about non-sexual child abuse, or the murder of children.  There was a ripped-from-the-headlines baby shaking case, and at least one baby-in-the-dumpster-on-prom-night.  Sometime they’ll even tell a story with no connection to sex crimes or crimes against minors, by setting up an awkward pretext for Benson and Stabler to take the case.  Want to do a drug trafficking episode? Fine:  just throw in a drive-by shooting where a stray bullet happens to hit a fifth grader.

Remember that Wrather’s account of the show is that people watch the show because they want on some level to commit the crime.  This could makes a certain amount of intuitive sense for the sex cases, if you take a dim view of humanity… but do we all secretly want to shake a baby?  Do we all secretly want to accidentally shoot a fifth grader in a drive-by? Even the explicitly sexual cases tend to cover too broad of a spectrum for the sublimated-sex model to really work:  the audience member who feels an illicit thrill while contemplating the “nubile cheerleader” is not likely to feel the same thrill while contemplating the eight year old boy.  But both appear as victims on SVU, and the viewing experience (drawing from a sample size of one, granted) is not particularly different.

For that matter, it’s not particularly different from the experience of watching regular Law & Order, which is about murder rather than sex.  Now, I suppose you could argue that murder too is something that the audience could want to live out vicariously.  But recently they had an episode about a guy who was running a scam where he sold saline solution as H1N1 vaccine.  I think it’s safe to say that none of us have ever wanted to do that, not even on “some level.”  Not because the act’s too vile, because it’s too specific. And frankly, a little too boring.  Nevertheless, the episode felt like Law & Order. They all feel like Law & Order.

3)  If Law & Order is really about the crimes, shouldn’t we expect it to occasionally depict the crimes?

If the Law and Order on SVU is just a pretext, then the show is 90% pretext by weight. Keep in mind, Law & Order: SVU is an extremely fastidious procedural where the criminals are pretty much only EVER seen as they interact with the police and lawyers.  We are given to understand that the crime has occurred, but we never see it occurring.  And this isn’t just a matter of getting it by the censors. Compare SVU to Criminal Minds, which salts the action with grand-guignol cutaways to the psycho doing whatever it is that he does.

You do have to dance around sex more than you have to dance around violence on network TV, true, but the strategy they use on Law & Order is a circuitous foxtrot by anyone’s standards.  Whenever an offense is represented on Law & Order it is always through a process of narration. You know these scenes if you’ve watched any of the shows more than a few times.  The camera slowly zooms in on the perp as he describes the crime (periodically cutting to a Mariska Hargitay reaction shot for variety), the droning electric violin music kicks in, and the actor gives an intense, vivid account of the act, complete with tears, trembling lips, cracking voice, and all the other accoutrements of melodrama.

This moment of narration is the crucial, defining moment of any episode of any Law and Order show, as definitive for the genre as the money shot is for pornography.  Notice that when the lawyers have a suspect who is ready to plead guilty, one of their conditions is always, always that he allocute to the crime.  I can’t imagine that this happens in real life. I mean, yes, it would be important in cases where there are family members or other victims who need closure, or where there is an accomplice that will be incriminated by the testimony.  But it happens on Law and Order even when there is only one suspect, and only one victim, and no family members.  It’s there so that they can justify the speech.  It’s there so that the audience can get closure.

Presumably under the “SVU is sublimated sex” argument, the confession sequence would just be a Freudian return-of-the-repressed, standing in for the actual money shot which society will not allow us to depict, and  allowing the audience to experience the rapist’s actions through his words.  But the problem again is that these narrations also show up in the non-sexual episodes of SVU, in Law and Order Classic™, and—somewhat less consistently—in various epigoni such as Bones and Cold Case. Nor are they always delivered by the criminal.

There are actually three types that I’ve noticed.  I think the one I’ve described above, where the criminal confesses, is the most common.  But it’s also quite common for the crime to be described by the victim (especially on SVU, where the victim is less likely to be dead), often as a crucial last-minute piece of testimony in court.  Least frequently, it can be delivered by the cops or prosecutors themselves.  This pops up in those rare epsiodes of Law & Order where the real criminal gets away with their crime by convincing the protagonists (and the jury, and the audience) of their innocence.  At the very last minute (usually after the verdict has been delivered, and thus too late for any practical effect), one of the lawyers will catch them in a lie and confront them with it, staging a confrontation that has no purpose other than to deliver that all-important rehearsal of the crime.

To summarize what I’ve said so far:

  • It’s hard to imagine that SVU is an excuse to watch rape, because it doesn’t even give you an opportunity to watch rape
  • The police-procedural aspects are too consistently observed, and too successful with the public, to be “only” a pretext.
  • This “sublimated-sex” explanation doesn’t explain the scenes of traumatic narration which seems to be so structurally important to the show.

16 Comments on “Dick Wolf’s Abject Theory of Justice”

  1. mlawski OTI Staff #

    “There is no analogue to Ocean’s Eleven where a raffishly handsome ex-con pulls together a dream team to pull off the perfect sexual assault.”

    Or, as I was discussing a week ago, there’s no spin-off of Dexter where a likeable rapist rapes other, eviller rapists.

    I like your arguments about L&O quite a bit, but I wonder if you can apply them to other shows. For example, on House, the episodes often end with Dr. House (or sometimes the patient, or sometimes the patient’s family) describing how the patient could have fallen ill with this particular disease. Then, at the end of the episode, the patient goes home, or into the television ether, not to be seen by the audience again. Would you argue that we’re trying to cast out the victims of illness from our society, too, even after we cure them?

    I think what motivates viewers to watch L&O, and, indeed, any criminal procedural, is simple curiosity. It’s a mystery. Why do people like mysteries? Because they want to know what happened. When you watch the news and hear about a crime, you almost never get to find out what happened. When you watch L&O, you always get to find out what happened. It’s as simple as that.


  2. stokes #

    You know what, Mlawski, you’re right. “When you see hoofprints, think horses, not zebras,” right? I was kind of thinking zebras with this post. Whatever else might be going on in those shows, people are basically tuning in because they like to see stories get told.

    Law & Order is a little strange for a mystery, though, right? You usually find out whodunit about halfway through the episode. And the reveal of who committed the crime is usually handled really lightly: someone walks in and says “Oh hey, we found a blood stain on Kevin’s fish scaling knife,” and then in the next scene they march Kevin out in handcuffs.


  3. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @stokes: True, true. And yet, when I watch Criminal Intent, which doesn’t have the tacked-on court case part of the show, I feel robbed, somehow. Maybe L&O: The Original and SVU both have TWO mysteries that need to be solved. The first half answers “Whodunit?” and the second half, even more importantly, asks “Why-dunit?” I guess we just want to know that criminals work somewhat logically–“I killed X ’cause he was cheating on me” or “I raped Y because I wanted to get back at her dad.” I guess you can argue that sort of thing is a ritualistic way of making us (the viewers) feel better about human society. These people are criminals, but at least they make some kind of sense.


  4. stokes #

    with regard to House – I’m not sure that the same model really applies. The way we think about sickness is a lot different from the way that we think about crime… while we tend to think of crime as something that happens to other people, everyone gets sick.

    On House, the sick people often are presented as “unclean.” The symptoms of the disease-of-the-week are usually made as grotesque as possible. But you typically get to see them looking healthy again at the end of the episode. So I think that the show really is about curing people (or rather, about solving the mystery and getting the cure as some kind of bonus prize). It’s not about curing them so they can live a long and productive life — again, that’s not something we ever get to see. Maybe they all get run over by the ambulance driver on their way out the door. But it is about getting them to stop looking so gross.


  5. stokes #

    And I think that the “these people are criminals, but at least they make some kind of sense” factor that you bring up is a really important one. But it’s not enough for the motivations just to become known to the audience: they need to be publicly aired. I mean – well, I’ve never watched an episode of Criminal Intent all the way through. But isn’t the point there that you get to actually see the criminal’s motivations as they’re committing the crime? And somehow that’s less satisfying than having them confess, or having the DA ferret out the secret later on.


  6. Matthew Wrather #

    I think this is well and charmingly argued, and I agree with the main point, which is that the narrative in the Law & Order shows functions by bringing to light a repressed trauma that is never depicted but is later narrated and then by casting the offender out of society.

    (I’ll mention but pass over the related point that in SVU it’s not just the perp’s confession but often the victim’s account of the crime that gets the slow-dolly-in electro-violin treatment. In terms of narrative function, the two are of a piece, which is a point you make… I am less morally troubled by the conflation than you are, because it is merely a consequence of the narrative form. Episodic television requires new episodes, which require new characters. If you want to watch victims of a crime endure the long aftermath—some ending well and some ending badly—watch The Wire.)

    The representative hole that you put at the center of each episode reminds me that these are functionally mystery stories, where a missing narrative element is revealed. (N.B. I wrote this last immediately after reading this post in the hopper. Shana makes the same point above.) In print, Sherlock Holmes is a classic example, pertinent here for filmed drama because the discovery is mediated through tropes of seeing and sight (e.g. “bring to light”). In film, I’d point to Mildred Pierce, where the missing bit of information is a reverse shot—we see the sleazebag playboy killed, but don’t see who did the killing until the end.

    But the criticism of the point I tirelessly—and perhaps tiresomely—make about SVU on the These Fun-loving Teenagers podcast is a straw man argument.

    I am to blame, I think, for supplying you with the straw man. It’s true that I’ve been focusing on the most sensationalistic example—the sexual assault of adorable nubile cheerleaders—of a more general point I am trying to make. This is a mistake, and I apologize, not just because I seem to have offended at least one fan of the show, but because it does the more general point—which I still believe is true—a disservice.

    Since Aristotle, one defense of dramatic art has been that it has instrumental benefits—that it is good for the state. Either our pity and fear are cathartically purged; or we learn to be better citizens; or, and this seems to be your argument, we are confirmed in our right relationship to the state by seeing undesirable people expelled from it. (In this, you seem to say, L&O is not so much good for the state as it is a recapitulation of the state’s workings—even its more dehumanizing effects.)

    But I have been reaching, thus far I fear unsuccessfully, to make a point not about narratology of the work but rather about the psychology of the viewer.

    There is a primal psychological reason that we want to see these traumas represented (as we have throughout human history and will continue to). I’m not satisfied with the argument that “It’s just a mystery, simple as that.” “Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?” is a mystery, and it’d make for lousy TV.

    I suggest it is not all to do with casting the offender out of society, not all to do with confirming our right relationship to the state, but rather indulging briefly in the pleasurable fantasy of beingthe offender, that is to say, the fantasy of being in wrong relation to the state and our fellows. For a moment, the viewer can imagine not sublimating every urge—especially the most unacceptable ones, like murder—in the name of civilization.

    This is not the only thing going on with this kind of crime show. A sandwich made entirely of bacon would not be much of a sandwich. Lettuce and tomato are necessary—where by lettuce and tomato I mean “the narrative apparatus for bringing the trauma to light and restoring order.” We appreciate these, I think, precisely because we understand that so many of our impulses are unacceptable in the context of civilized society. (Not to be all, “my theory predicts your objection” or anything, but this is why we’re so cagey about this kind of pleasure.) So the restoration of order, the retribution—these elements bring relief. But I think the pleasure—the individual psychological pleasure, the aspect of these shows that is not merely interesting but compelling—comes not from order restored but rather from disorder (however briefly) entertained.

    (Also, I may be shooting myself in the foot by using crime shows as the textual evidence. A better example might be Shakespeare’s comedies, where the spate of orderly marriages at the end can’t obscure the licentious fun we had in the forest in acts II through IV. The crime shows are a much darker forest, but I think the principle is the same.)

    I am saying, in other words, that one among the pleasures of eating a BLT is that bacon is bad for you. It is not its only pleasure, and perhaps not its foremost pleasure (you and I, I suspect, would disagree about this point). But still, the bacon is all the more satisfying because it is enjoyed over the objections of your superego or your doctor or your mother or whatever, whose tiresome carping you can briefly forget when it is drowned out by the delicious, salty crunch.


  7. Tom P #

    One of Wrather’s more elegant ways of getting at it is to claim that “We go to entertainment to see things we secretly wish we could do… if you are watching [SVU], you want the cheerleader to be raped. If you were not happy with a representation of the adorable nubile cheerleader being raped, you would turn off the show.”

    I think this premise is incorrect. I think people are tuning in to see bad guys caught — by any means necessary. By this premise, people also hate the Constitution, because that’s what’s routinely raped on Law & Order*.


  8. stokes #

    This is interesting, Wrather – thanks for explaining more fully! So are you arguing that what we want to fantasize about is not “to commit [heinous act X],” but rather simply “to transgress?”


  9. Matthew Wrather #

    @stokes — Sure, if you like, that’s the general basic wish which I’m suggesting a lot of drama fulfills. The transgression takes its specific form depending on the viewer and the material viewed (or read or sung or whatever). I think I was shooting myself in the foot by focusing on the most lurid and controversial example. (What, me sensationalize? Never!) Then again, the podcast is called These Fraternizing Teenagers.

    @Tom P — I’d point to 24 as a more egregious example. L&O at least pays lip service to a system of civil liberties protected by law. (Though it’s true that these are treated more as an obstacle to “real” justice than as a cherished bedrock principle of our society.)


  10. stokes #

    I don’t doubt that this is a thing that happens in some entertainments. It would be hard to understand Ocean’s Eleven in any other way. But it seems a little reductive to claim that all depictions of wrongdoing are there so we can fantasize about doing wrong. When people watch Hotel Rwanda, are they indulging in a pleasurable fantasy of genocide? (Now who’s being lurid?)


  11. stokes #

    by the way, speaking of 24: Slavoj Zizek has an interesting piece here about how the terrorists AND Jack Bauer’s CTU team are don’t get to have human rights on that show… by being involved in the struggle they forfeit their right to be human. Not really related to our discussion here, but it’s an interesting read if you want to think about 24 and the Constitution.


  12. Tom P #

    @Wrather: I view Law and Order and 24 differently. Law and Order is just a weekly raping of generally common people. 24 has more spent 8 years asking people at what point do principals break down and you can still feel OK about it.

    *** 24 Spoilers below ***

    Like this past week’s episode 24… 150,000 New Yorkers who didn’t ask to get irradiated when they woke up for work that morning and turning the Upper West Side in to radioactive wasteland vs. not negotiating with terrorists. Or in previous seasons — torturing a murderer vs. nuking Los Angeles. Those aren’t constitutional issues — they’re moral principal issues. Those are very different issues than Jack McCoy’s unconstitutional discovery process.


  13. Gab #

    This is what I was thinking as I read the piece itself, and I think it still fits in with the discussion thus far because it provides yet another alternative while still about “pleasure.” Sorry if I’m taking it too off-topic.

    What if it’s not sexual erotica, but “erotica” in the sense that it creates a stimulus [i.e. pleasure] in the audience? What I mean is, the success of these kinds of narratives, ones depicting (or narrating) acts we’d find atrocious or “bad” is prolific: horror movies, comedies, dramas, it doesn’t matter, seeing (or at least knowing about) characters in discomfort brings audiences pleasure in some way because it discomforts AUDIENCES. The underlying masochism* is what makes it successful and desired. As such, the crimes in the various versions of _Law and Order_ or any other cop show (I kept thinking of _Castle_ as I read, which does the same stuff- sometimes we see it, sometimes the perp tells us, sometimes Beckett or Castle tells us, but we always know what happened in the end) are a source of the highest internal discomfort, since the ideas of rape, murder, (child) abuse, etc., in and of themselves, even outside the context of the show(s) (or whatever else we’re using to “experience” them) make us more uncomfortable than the idea of stubbing your toe; and since a guy stubbing his toe has no real moral implications, the idea of a person molesting a five-year-old cuts at something else in our consciousness AND sub-consciousness, and it is that feeling, that cut, we crave.

    *One could also argue it’s a vaguely sadistic impulse, too, and with a similar train of thought, but I’ll let it lie for now.


  14. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    Sorry I’m late to the party. But I’ve been watching a LOT of Law and Order recently, so I feel the need to post a comment. Truthfully, I’m not sure I understand a lot of the subtle, grad school arguments being advanced in this piece and the comments. But I didn’t see much discussion of the peculiar two-act nature of Law and Order (the mothership). If you asked me to say why the show is addicting, WITHOUT overthinking anything, I’d say you get two types of entertainment in one hour. You get to see detectives solve a mystery. And you also get to see prosecutors take on murderers in court. These are two very different pleasures: seeing Lenny interrogate witnesses vs. seeing McCoy try to deflect motions to exclude evidence from swarmy lawyers. But these stories seem so well-crafted and organic it all feels like one whole.

    To me, CSI seems kind of primitive – almost every episode ends with them finding one undeniable piece of scientific evidence. Then the murderer either confesses, or the audience is lead to believe that conviction is 100% assured. In Law and Order, no case is ever so airtight that the outcome isn’t in doubt. Even in cases where the evidence is of the CSI sort, the defendant always has a trick up his sleeve.

    Anyway, that’s the Law and Order 1-2 punch: can we find the murderer, and then can we nail him? I use “we” purposefully, because I always root for the characters. I root for the characters a lot easier than I root for the characters in, let’s say, House. That’s because in House, the characters are real 3-D characters, with lives and feelings and interests outside the case of the week. I might enjoy watching them, but I don’t feel like I want to BE House. In Law and Order, the characters have personalities, but the details are notoriously vague. The show is legendary for how little you ever find out about the characters. This makes it easy to step into their shoes.

    Anyway, I don’t believe the pleasure of Law and Order has much to do with the details of the actual crime. For me, it’s more about COMPETITION. It’s good guys vs. bad guys. You keep watching, because you want to see if the good guys will win. That being said, I’ve never understood the appeal of SVU, which DOES seem to revolve around a fascination with the victims, not the criminals.

    I realize little of this has to do with your actual thesis – I just enjoy writing about Law and Order.


  15. Gab #

    Then how about a Law and Order week?



  16. stokes #

    I would be quite in favor of a law and order week, and could probably poop out another post on the topic. Anyone else interested?


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