Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee, and Matthew Wrather discuss the long and storied history of Overthinking.
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- OTI Classic: The Philosophy of Batman
- Kubla Khan
- Tilda Swinton
- Charlton Heston in Wayne’s World 2
- Eudora (email client)
- “Moodwatch” now in Euroda 5.0 (September 12, 2000)
- Fade In by Michael Piller [PDF]
Before I started listening to today’s episode I was finishing on latest Linux Voice podcast. LV reoccurring joke is that they play jingle that signifies half of the podcast just before it ends.
And then I started listening to Question of The Day Podcast™. There where no jingle.
I haven’t seen him around much lately, but one of my Favourite Actors Who Work(ed) from the 90’s was David Warner. I saw him on everything from Snooty Masterpiece Theatre downwards and heard his voice on Spiderman cartoons. He was on Star Trek three different times, progressively nastier each time. His most famous Star Trek incarnation was Gul Maldred: “How many lights do you see?” A question which I now keep hearing in a Jack Bauer voice.
In this century, a consummate Actor Who Works is Colm Feore. Watch almost any TV show for long enough, and he WILL show up.
The phone number confusion at the beginning – I wonder if it would be easier to give out the number if you could find some easy mnemonic that can be spelled by the letters on the phone buttons.
Moral Certainty as the Appeal of SVU
The lead characters all have their own moral codes that, generally, become justified by the ends. Chris Meloni’s character, Stabler, has this vicious streak in his personality that often expresses itself in violence against suspects. That frequently causes him problems in terms of violating due process and other concerns, but in the end the guilty are punished in SVU. Not having performed the same analysis of conviction rates that Matt Belinkie has performed about the core Law & Order show, I suspect that SVU has a much, much higher rate of conviction than the original show (when it shows a conviction at all as it seems SVU has, over time, moved away from the investigation / courtroom split of its progenitor to being primarily about the police). SVU reliably affirms through its conclusions the initial moral sentiments of its characters. I believe this moral certitude is welcomed by viewers because it affirms the worldview of viewers that, in the end, justice is done per the moral code that the characters (and presumably the viewers) live by.
At the same time, a primary reoccurring tension in the show is how the police are routinely stymied from effecting justice by the due process and other legal rights of the accused. Stabler may want to perform a search without a warrant, but cannot because the suspect has rights. He must, in the end, play by the rules even though those rules seem to tie one hand behind the unit’s back. This is sort of an interesting example of how “the Man”, in the form of the rules of criminal procedure and the like, is always trying to keep the SVU team down. (The irony that the police are, in fact, the Man is not really explored) The theme of having to play within seemingly illogical and unhelpful rules to achieve one’s end goals is something that resonates quite well with middle American audiences. By the end of an episode, the tension is released as the SVU team figures out another means within the rules to collar their perp.
Interestingly, the SVU police are occasionally stymied by the rules when they want to treat a suspect with kid gloves for whatever reason. There are a number of episodes where the police recognize someone as having done a crime, but try to help the suspect out for whatever reason. Here again, the police are frequently limited in their ability to help the party out by the rules that bind the police. Again, the tension is generally dissipated by the end of the show as something changes to ensure the party in question is not treated unjustly.
SVU shows a world where moral certitude always triumphs even when rules in place seem to act to keep the team down. I think this perception on having to work constantly within a limiting confine to achieve ends that one knows, deep in his or her heart, are righteous is appealing to many television viewers who may feel powerless to effect what they see as their own righteous ends. SVU creates a fantasy world where one’s unswerving moral certainty is always rewarded despite the somewhat shadowy means, such as Stabler’s violence, that are used by the characters. I don’t think it would be on Kant’s Tivo queue.
The Unchanging World of SVU
Another aspect of SVU the static nature of its characters, particularly how the police treat suspects. To the SVU police, all sex criminals are always sex offenders who will serially reoffend. This most frequently occurs when a past offender is charged with a contemporary crime. Sex offense becomes not a situational crime but the result of deep-seated character flaws within the perp. Even adolescent offenders who display criminal predilection are not steered towards In SVU there is no redemption.
At the same time, the stars of the show are static personalities. Things happen to them, but their core personalities rarely change. Stabler is always violent, Benson is always seemingly frustrated and confused (although it occurs to me that this may simply be the only way Mariska Hargitay can emote). For a show with over a dozen seasons in syndication, this works because it comforts the viewer who may tune into one of the endless showings on USA Network without having to worry about where the show is in its run. Never mind coming back, no one bother taking about Za’ha’dum in SVU.
This is not to say that the shows’ main characters’ circumstances are static. The characters go through a long series of relationships that invariably fail. Maybe that’s because the characters themselves do not change.
The Wisdom of Ice T
Ice T’s character, Finn, is an interesting case. Where Stabler and others run largely by an internal moral code, Finn judges people by their perceived legal status. A morally bankrupt party will draw complaints from Stabler and others on the force, but Finn would excuse the behavior provided it is legal. At the same time, Finn will be the first to condemn the actions of a party that are per se illegal, but morally justifiable (such as a party who commits statutory rape in what appears to be a long-term, loving relationship).
In practice, this makes him more private and emotionally distant than other characters. Finn isn’t the one to throw a party against the wall or emotionally connect with a party. In many ways, Finn is one of the voices of reason on the show contrasting with the more emotional main characters Stabler and Benson.
Yes, as I was listening to the podcast, I was thinking that SVU was actually a terrible example to use to illustrate the donkey-effing conundrum, because to the extent that its appeal has anything to do with lurid sex crimes, it’s as a way of reassuring people that These Things Are Dealt With.
There’s a reason it’s called Special Victims Unit, and not, say Sex Crimes Unit.
As you say, the actual appeal is mostly one of moral certitude, with the nature of the crimes primarily intended to elicit actual outrage (rather than titillation masquerading as such), which is then resolved by the heroic-if-flawed efforts of the SVU detectives.
I think SVU took a turn to the lurid in how it depicts sex crimes over the years. It originally followed the classic L&O format: no flashbacks, only scenes in which the detectives/attorneys are present, certainly nothing like the x-ray vision sequences of CSI. Thus, we usually saw the aftermaths of crimes, but not the crimes themselves.
For me, the tipping point was an episode of SVU that opened with a scene of a nearly-naked, bruised woman scrambling through the wilderness, shot from an omniscient viewpoint. Watching that made me feel like I had stumbled into some Jess Franco exploitation film. That’s when SVU lost any credibility.
One of the fundamental appeals of the police and/or legal procedurals is the re-affirmation of moral certitude, that the system works. (At least the original L&O would sometimes engage with the idea that the detectives and attorneys are flawed human beings who are now always morally righteous.) Once you have that frame in place, you can contain a lot. A lot of CSI episodes seem based on this kind of Foucault-style “enforce the discourse” idea: there are freaks out there in the world, hiding in plain sight, and sooner or later they will do something violent, and then we have to discipline them, bring them into the discourse of the state. The CSI episodes about furries, sadomasochists and adult babies were all written by the same writer, and so many others are about investigating and policing non-normative subcultures. The viewer takes covert pleasure in exploring these hidden worlds, but also takes more overt pleasure in vicariously mastering them.
Right. They got caught up in the arms race with Criminal Minds.
I’d put it a slightly different way—I think it’s the focus on the lasting repercussions of trauma that makes SVU in particular somewhat less exploitative than other shows in its category (though as I comment above, it did get caught up in the general trend over the last half-dozen years of more and more lurid depictions of sexual violence).
But the reassertion of moral certainty—of Law and Order—at the end of an episode (like the spate of marriages at the end of a Shakespeare comedy), doesn’t mitigate the Donkey-effing conundrum; it’s the point of the Donkey-effing conundrum.
In fact I’d probably argue that the louder a show is about its reassertion of order, the more suspicious I am about the show’s actual motives in portraying the things it portrays.
The show’s motives hardly matter for the condundrum to be real, I would think. Nor does whether it ultimately comes down “in favor” of or against the lurid-ness. I mean, they matter for some things, but not for whether the conundrum is a real thing that does what you say it does. The whole idea of Hegelian dialectic (are you in favor of violence or against it? Let’s have the detectives illustrate the argument!) is misguided, as is the whole idea of works of art taking a clear moral stand on “issues of the day.”
A work of art cannot truly be defined as “for” or “against” something independent of the experience of the person interacting with and interpreting it.
The show has lurid-ness in it. This by itself is not wrong or bad. People respond to that luridness; it draws them in; on an authentic level they connect with this aspect of the show and want to watch it, whatever else they think or believe. Trauma and attraction, sex, death, and danger are linked and often cannot be distinguished from one another – the forbidden and the available, thanatos and eros, bad boy greasers and choir girls. We have a genre called “horror” that people watch voluntarily and think is fun. The general state of emotional arousal around things you really hate and fear and things you relish is virtually the same, as is the drive to pursue it. Why else would people spend hours and hours of their days enraged and saddened, in endless arguments about the very things they hate most, as a form of leisure? Classification fails.
This is one of the basic truths of lurid spectacle, or of spectacle in general — people want to watch it. Every work of art has spectacle in it on some level, whether it wants to or not, whether it says it wants to or not. Just think of all the sinewy woodcraft put into old-fashioned radio design.
Then the question becomes, okay, this impulse to be drawn to specactle in general, and lurid spectacle in particular, is a real thing. How do we deal with it, both as artists and audience? What responsibilities do we have in our own moral and political contexts.
A great example of how this all works and changes is Westerns. Westerns are full of lurid spectacle — murder, giant muscular animals, homoerotic staredowns, exoticized peoples, powdered helpless women, rough-necked thugs, doe-eyed cowboy dreams — it’s all terribly camp when you take it apart. Few subjects so evenly split shelf space on your dad’s bookshelf with stage space in strip, drag and burlesque clubs of all gender expression, persuasion and performance.
In a certain time period, it was generally felt that Westerns had obligations to portray outcomes and moral truths in a certain way. The white hat hero, the cavalry, good wins over evil, a certain chivalrous chastity.
But of course all the lurid spectacle was still drawing people to the movies. Just because one gunslinger drinks milk instead of whiskey and tips his hat to women doesn’t mean he’s not a charged sexual object.
And then after that you have the more deconstructed Westerns — your Leonies, your Good, Bad and Uglies, your Once Upon a Time in the Wests — where the trappings of overarching moral obligation are stripped away and it’s put in a more nihilistic, or at least conflicted and irresolveable place.
This was once and still often seen as a smart thing to do, because it shows us a truth about Westerns that was always true. Although it does kind of miss the point to assume that everybody watching the John Wayne movies found the experience to be sanitized of these things — rather than in tension with them. There’s a pleasure in watching them and a pleasure in watching them die of gunshots to the chest.
There’s a corollary here, I think, somewhere — having to do with John Wayne and Lifetime Movies. Why do people who love law-abiding Old West want to see the worst possible things happen all the time to the law-abiding Old West? Why does a channel for women constantly show stories about domestic abuse and parental kidnapping? It’s a little too simple to say just “to see the bad guys lose.” They only lose at the end; for most of the movies, the bad guys are winning. And it’s not like during that time you’re not being entertained. And yet you’re still not on the side of the bad guys. Probably you’re attracted and excited by how much you hate them as much as by the luridness of their acts.
So yeah, the point is, even if you know things like murder and luridness are bad, don’t think you’ve above wanting to watch them. And just because you want to watch them, don’t think that it means you must think they are good things. There is a fraud at the heart of all puritan morality, old or new, progressive or regressive. But maybe it’s a venal fraud, whose benefits outweigh its dishonesty, or maybe it’s a beautiful fraud, finding in art the power to transcend its irreconcilability.
However it works, morality and human experience are not that cleanly apiece. And if art is to meaningfully connect with it and resonate with it authentically, then it can’t be that clean either.
That said, when you’re talking about the arms race in detective show luridness and Mandy Patinkin leaving Criminal Minds because of it, I think you’re also talking about a real thing — although it’s not necessary to indict every show of its type with moral crimes in order to see how the conundrum operates.
I really don’t have much of a frame of reference for the shows anyway. I rarely watch prodecural detective shows, and I’ve seen remarkably little Law & Order of any kind over the years. This is mostly because of my crazy schedule – they are on whenever a normal person would watch TV, and I don’t watch TV then. So I can’t say anything with certainty about any of these shows — I can just look at how the conundrum operates in different genres (the whole genre of prestige cable drama depends on it – it’s basically what all those premium channels have done full-time for decades; show lurid spectacle you can’t see elsewhere) and use that as a basis for comparison.
By the way, I really hope it won’t be too much longer before they stop explaining the podcast to new listeners and just go back to actually doing the podcast…
I understand the impulse to provide all this background, but I have to agree that the exposition and navel-gazing isn’t nearly as fun as the actual business of subjecting the popular culture to a level of scrutiny it probably doesn’t deserve.
I’m a little late to the party here, but I have to weigh in.
This SVU particular issue is a thorn in my side. I have almost quit the podcast a few times because of it. (Please don’t make me quit. I usually love the podcast).
I won’t argue the assertion that SVU went though a lurid period. I watched seasons one thru thirteen(ish) in one long go, so they all blur together. But that is not the usual MO of the show, nor is it something I recall from the recent seasons.
I started watching SVU because I ran out of regular Law and Order. But, I won’t watch CI, so there must be more than that.
One draw of SVU is that rape is always treated as a BIG DEAL and a BAD THING. The detectives always take the victims at face value. They, especially Benson, are caring and sympathetic. They are dismayed by slut shaming, victims accused of asking for it, sex workers being treated as sub human, or any of the other sexist BS that happens in real life and on the interwebs.
Then there’s Detective Benson. If I only had a bad ass female detective, dayenu (that can’t be spelled right). But Benson is the rare female character who is genuinely tough and vulnerable. She’s super super great with victims and super super kick ass with suspects. She is exactly the person I would want to see if I needed the assistance of a police officer.
In the current culture, it is rare to find a TV show that so indicts rape as always bad, no excuses.
I wish this would be addressed during discussions of SVU. It’s irritating to be told I like SVU because of its lurid violence. I hate the parts with lurid violence. I usually avert my eyes.
Hi Crystal! Are you on twitter or something? I’d like to follow you :)