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Mirror up to nature: "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"

Posted by Robin Abrahams  September 27, 2012 11:42 AM

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Tuesday night, right before the start of Yom Kippur, Lindy West of Jezebel wrote a piece about "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," and why we--and by "we" I mean my fellow ladies--love that show so very much. Thanks to the holiday, I couldn't do an immediate response, but!--here is my slightly belated take on the phenomenon. 

It's a show about rape, yet damn near every woman I know loves it. For over a decade, this was explained in two words: Christopher Meloni. Yet he's gone--wasted into vampire Jell-O after five episodes of "True Blood," great career move there--and the show goes on. 

It's not a very good cop show. 

However, as a gothic Brechtian deconstruction of a cop show--it's genius. 

And that's why you love it, whether you know it or not. "L&O: SVU" puts our worst fears on the screen, week after week after year after year. Child abduction. Rape by stranger. Human trafficking. Rape by family member. Drug addiction. Rape by lady piano teacher. Illegal body modification. Michael Emerson. Michael Emerson as a child-sacrificing art history professor.

Michael Emerson as a child-sacrificing art history professor being arrested in the middle of his classroom lecture by Richard Belzer and Ice-T. 

You kind of know what a "gothic Brechtian deconstruction of a cop show" means right about now, even if you can't define any of those first three words, don't you? 

Bertolt Brecht, most famously known for "The Threepenny Opera," developed a style of theater in which the audience was continually jolted into awareness that dude, it's just a play. Actors would break character and address the audience directly, didactic songs would be stuck in the middle of the action, stagehands would move scenery in full view of the audience. 

The idea was to keep slapping you out of feeling and into thinking. Just as you really start getting into the story and empathizing with the characters, Brecht puts in something to pull you out again. (Brechtian theater is like the opposite of the Mafia. You keep trying to get in, Brecht keeps pulling you back out.) 

An aesthetic style that would continually shift audiences between sentimental empathy and critical awareness is called "epic theater." It was a groundbreaking idea a hundred years ago, and the smartest theater artists in the world are still exploring this extraordinarily fertile concept today. 

"L&O: SVU" achieves epic theater status by the simple expedient of not being very good. 

Or, more precisely, being bad in very specific ways that keep the viewer from being overwhelmed by the horror of the actual stories portrayed in the show. Those stories, and the actors who play them--those are often very good indeed. 

In the episode "Disabled," for example, the detectives watch a video recording of a caretaker beating a paralyzed woman with a bar of soap in a sock. The woman in the wheelchair has advanced multiple sclerosis; she can feel the beating, but not dodge or even scream beyond choked moans and grunts. The video goes on for several minutes, one woman mercilessly pounding another across the head, face, breasts. The detectives are repulsed--even Ice-T is visibly shaken. The video cuts out. 

After a moment of silence, the forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Huang, speaks. "I think Janice deeply resents having to care for her sister." 

YOU THINK? Let me tell you, Bertolt Brecht is kicking himself in his grave, if such a thing is possible, for not putting Dr. Huang in "The Good Woman of Szechuan." 

This is how "L&O: SVU" works. It doesn't distance the viewer with theatrical "breaking the fourth wall" tricks. It distances the viewer by providing such an excess of information, which is never understood by the characters to be so, that the "Duh" response of any normal person is triggered several times an episode. This makes it possible to actually enjoy tales of horror that would otherwise be far too disturbing. 

Notice the next time written material--a sign, a newspaper headline, a coroner's report--is shown on "SVU." It will be shown long enough to be read. Then a character will read it aloud. Then another character will interpret that reading like a dimwitted rabbi. If the drivers' license reads "Joe Smith," Benson will wait three seconds and then say, "Joe Smith." Then Tutuola will say, "That's a different name than he gave us!" 

Did you know that a child gets half its DNA from its mother and half from its father, so that a child who shares more than 50% of the DNA of one of its parents is a product of incest? Would you expect that sex cops would know this? Would you expect that sex cops who have had this explained to them at least once every season for 14 years would know this? 

In a science-dependent show, technical material that would be familiar to the characters still has to be introduced to the audience. There are ways to do this unobtrusively. Perhaps the simplest is to add the word "Since" to the beginning of Dr. Exposition's monologue, thus acknowledging that we have had this conversation before. 

I don't know why "L&O" doesn't do this. I don't know why their original quartet of detectives consisted of two actors playing relatively complex, nuanced characters and two charismatic performers playing cop versions of themselves. I don't know why police who work in sex crimes have apparently never heard of any sexual act not touted in Cosmo magazine. I don't know whether lines like "Just because I have high cholesterol doesn't mean I'm a rapist!" or "Do you think there's a reason the perp sodomized your husband with a banana?" or "We need to talk to the grapes" (while arresting an actor during a Fruit of the Loom commercial shoot) are genius or madness. 

And I don't have to know. All I have to do is tune in every Wednesday night and enjoy feeling smarter than my darkest fears.

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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at missconduct@globe.com.
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Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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