Friday, December 10, 2010

"Law & Order" is Making Me Cringe

The "Law & Order" franchise has been one of the stand-bys of my television watching schedule for a very long time. I've mostly stuck to the "Special Victims Unit" spinoff, though I've seen plenty of the other variants and I've been meaning to check out the UK adaptation too. Mistakes and exaggerations abound, which I've mostly been able to suspend my disbelief about, because they're necessary for dramatic effect. Trials that would take months or years are compressed into five-minute scenes, the detectives are only ever seen working on one case at a time, suspects are always hammy overactors, and somehow the department has the budget for all kinds of cutting edge technology for medical tests and forensics - which take no time at all to process. There's also the common practice of ripping story elements from the headlines and cobbling together single episodes out of the most salacious details of maybe half a dozen separate cases from all over the country.

On Wednesday's episode of "Law & Order: SVU" I think they went a little too far on all counts. I've always seen complaints about the way "Law & Order" depicts sex crimes, especially the ones involving children. Too exploitative and explicit, was the common charge, and I could see their point. There were some episodes in the past that did make me uncomfortable, because the made-up cases often lingered on the distress of the victims or the sadism of the perpetrators for far longer than was necessary or tasteful. The series started out with more realistic, grittier portrayals that I liked better than the slicker, more polished stories you see now. It's the same with many other crime shows, and "Law & Order" hasn't been the worst of them by far. Except after Wednesday, I'm not so sure anymore.

The episode in question started out with a little girl who had been horribly abused and neglected, found bleeding and near starvation in a convenience store. Then add parents who were Internet addicts, one of whom coincidentally suffered from Capgras delusion, the mistaken belief that their nearest and dearest had been replaced with pod people substitutes. This element was introduced just long enough to set up a really horrific interrogation scene where the afflicted mother rejects her traumatized daughter. From there, the story immediately switched tracks once it turned out the little girl was raped by an unknown assailant. Enter an Internet vigilante group harassing anyone in the neighborhood identified as a sexual offender, led by a character from a previous episode with a fixation on pedophiles. Also in the mix were two briefly introduced men on the offenders' list with sympathetic circumstances, portrayed as unfairly persecuted for past or imagined crimes. There was also a suicide scene, an illegal surveillance scheme, courtroom histrionics, and a little girl soiling herself in fright.

What the hell? This was one of the worst, most gratuitous episodes of "SVU" I've ever seen, that crossed the line into downright sleazy territory several times. I expect a certain amount of distasteful content on this show, but you had more than enough to deal with in the first ten minutes to fill the entire episode. Several interesting characters like the mentally challenged man and his mother are introduced for only a scene or two, and then disappear from the narrative completely. There's hardly a word to resolve what happened to the original young victim. This was a rotten script with a shock ending that anyone could see coming from a mile away, crammed so full of twists and turns and revelations that it never dealt with a single one of them competently, with any kind of insight or illumination. It was all just fodder for cheap thrills, and it makes Manhattan look like some kind of secret pedophile hotspot.

I know it's the modus operandi of the "Law & Order" series to start with one crime and often end somewhere completely different, but at least the stories used to be well-paced and gave you some breathing room between one development and the next. Somewhere along the line the episodes have just turned into densely packed catalogs of horrors, each more unlikely than the last. Think too hard about the actions of the major villain of the episode, and they make no sense. The evil gamer parents were ridiculous caricatures, stock nefarious types who had been pulled out of some Dickens novel and introduced to an X-Box. This isn't the first time I've felt like this show is written by people who do little to no research into the some of the subcultures they like to heap scorn upon. And enough already with traumatizing the adorable little girls! Once an episode should be more than sufficient!

Oh, "Law & Order." You're supposed to be the classy crime drama. You're supposed to have higher standards than "CSI" and "Without a Trace" and their ilk. It pains me to see you sink to this level. It really does.

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