I was delighted to see Law & Order finally return this week. It is my comfort food, and has kept me company for most of my life. I was one of the annoyed fans who couldn’t believe it when it was cancelled back in 2010. It has returned for season 22, rejoining its spinoff, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (currently in season 23), which is the longest running police procedural on TV.
The procedural itself is a fantastic artifact of popular culture. It was in the nineteenth century that fiction writers turned to the detective as a subject: first the private detective, later the police officer. Later through broadcast media we got the police procedural genre, which has developed its own tropes and styles, some of them built around the realities of law enforcement and some built from traditional dramatic techniques.
Law enforcement offers a perfect setting for drama. You have people who operate within a hierarchical workplace structure: into which character types can easily be slotted. The nature of detection lends itself to the “case of the week” model. The episode starts with a crime and ends with a perpetrator led off in handcuffs. Creatively, this offers an opportunity for writers to create completely different narratives each week, based around a core set of characters. This combination of novelty and familiarity for audiences has proved to be enduringly popular, and repeated through shows from Dragnet to Murder, She Wrote.
It's also a format for that works wonderfully well with programs that are going to be seen in repeats for years. With no long plot arcs, episodes can be seen in any order, each one offering a self-contained story. I am sure I have seen every episode of Law & Order, some more than once.
Creator Dick Wolf launched multiple related shows from the Law & Order stable. These have included Law & Order: Arrest and Trial (a rare misfire for the franchise, it only lasted a season) Law & Order: Criminal Intent, plus Los Angeles and London offshoots. Of all these, SVU is still running, and a newcomer Law & Order: Organized Crime, started in 2021.
The beauty of Law & Order was always the 50/50 episode split, between the police investigation and the prosecution. The court wrangling was often fascinating - because of the variety of reasons someone can kill. The defendant was sometimes sympathetic, or at least had mitigating factors in their favor.
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SVU can’t focus so much on the court issues, because the answer to who did it is always: “some sick pervert”. The viewer has limited patience for the legal machinations of child molesters, or watching a smug defense lawyer get them acquitted on a technicality. Nonetheless, we obviously have a lurid fascination for sex crimes, as tabloids have always known. So the show focuses on the cops and the victims.
This focus on cops has made it a challenge for SVU in recent seasons to address the relationship between the community and the NYPD. It’s a tough needle to thread for a show about police. (But this is a show that also stars Ice-T, who had a hit with “Cop Killer”…). Arguments against “copaganda” are also trickier on a show where literally every villain is a rapist.
The first episode of the new season of Law & Order involved some acknowledgment of how attitudes to police have changed since 2020 - but that show always had more ambivalence about police, or at least a willingness to show them operating in a grey area (and challenged on it by the lawyers). L&O also didn’t go home with the characters, or encourage us to empathise with them more on a personal level.
SVU does, and how. Olivia Benson is herself a child of stranger-rape. It’s swerved through soapy and ridiculous at times (remember when Captain Cragen woke up next to a dead hooker?). With frosted lenses (on Hargitay), affairs, illegitimate children: at times it’s like Young and the Restless in a police station.
With the original L&O, there were almost no continuing story arcs. Even the death of Claire Kincaid - in a car with Lennie Briscoe - didn’t produce the amount of introspection and on-screen agonising as the various relationship dramas of the detectives on SVU. They stuck to the cases, and that made it stronger. (The major change in structure they made in later seasons was to stop opening with someone finding a body, and instead showed some element of the victim’s life before their death. I never felt this added much: I rather preferred the bickering suburban couple stepping out of a restaurant and onto a corpse, or the sanitation worker who suddenly notices a foot….).
As a historian of crime and policing, I’ve been fascinated by the presentation of urban history in police dramas (I wrote about The Wire and Baltimore for TIME). And a show over this many years has been a real-time account of changing attitudes to crime, to the death penalty, to the role of police.
Law & Order offered a chronicle of New York’s recovery from the crack epidemic through the Giuliani years and Bloomberg years. Now, earlier episodes seem archaic (police officers have to make calls from pay phones, they still have typewriters in the precinct office) but also show how much the city changed over time. So I’m glad to at last have my show back, and look forward to seeing how it continues to track the city.