Adapting the department

Adapting the department

Law & Order: SVU, The Rookie, and others in the post-George Floyd era

Last year, I decided to binge watch my favorite fantasy TV series: Law & Order: SVU. All 21 seasons of it. I started with Season 13, right when the series experienced a bit of a reset when co-star Christopher Meloni (Detective Elliot Stabler) left, went to the end, then started with season 1 and worked my way up to that episode.

The Law & Order franchise has been a favorite go-to for me. I can put it on in the background and not pay a whole lot of attention to it. Each episode has a solid structure baked into it: an abrupt cold open featuring the crime of the week, the detectives working their way up the ladder to figure out who was behind the crime, a misdirect, some evidence looked at in a new light, then the trading with the District Attorney before the perp goes off to jail.

Of all the Law & Orders, Special Victims Unit is on paper should be the show that’s ahead of the curve when it comes to a wide range of cultural conversations that are going on right now: discussions of LGBTQIA+ communities, the raised profile of sexual assault that occurred following President Donald Trump’s election and subsequent #MeToo movement, crimes against children, and so forth — often ripping stories from the headlines. And the show — and many others on television — make the case that the officers and detectives out enforcing the law are by and large dedicated professionals who will always do the right thing.

Part of what got me thinking about this was a podcast that I dipped into last year — Headlong’s Running from COPS, a six-episode series hosted by Dan Taberski about the long-running TV series COPS, and how it portrayed a certain type of policing over the course of its three-decade run.

A couple of years ago, I attended the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, which hammered home a key point about the entertainment industry: books, comics, movies, and TV shows do a lot to shape the public perceptions of science, and that when stories use hand-wavy junk science or cut corners, some part of the public will believe that what they’re seeing has some basis in reality.

Taberski dissects the series to look at how the show is shot, and how it appeals to the wider public. He shows off a series that looks to viewers as though it’s very real, noting that it’s really heavily edited, that the camera crew adds a certain weight to the situations in each episode, and the role that police departments play in editing and censoring footage. The show has had a real impact in recruiting officers — some of whom were born after the show started — and how it skews our perceptions of what crime is actually out there. Ultimately, the reality show isn’t entirely real, and that at its worst, it’s a propaganda project on the part of a justice system trying to convince the public that the War on Drugs was worth waging.

That’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot over the course of this summer, as we saw major protests erupt across the country confronting and calling out police brutality against people of color. And as I watched TV in the background, I couldn’t help but think about how television has routinely presented a sympathetic and positive view of how the police go about their work.

This year saw many of those shows go on a bit of a hiatus as their productions stalled with the onset of COVID-19, and with that delay, many producers and writers began to incorporate the events of this past summer into their storylines, to varying degrees of quality.

Image: NBC

That winter TV season is now upon us, and we’re starting to see what the results of that work, and I want to focus on how two shows are approaching this new environment.

Law & Order: SVU returned for its 22nd season back in November, and featured a frantic SVU precinct as the team responds to a potential assault after a woman called the police on a Black man in a park (a scene that took cues from the Central Park birdwatching incident last summer), and which forces Benson and her precinct to confront some of their own racial biases. The Rookie kicked off by resolving a cliffhanger from last season, in which Officer John Nolan was framed by a senior detective. Other shows, like S.W.A.T. have incorporated talking points into their episodes, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine ended up scrapping its existing scripts for its upcoming eighth season and started over in light of the protests.

SVU has always had a bit of a ham-fisted approach when it comes to ripped-from-the-headlines stories, trading speed for story when it grabs sensational headlines for its episodes. That’s on display here, as the the first episodes from this season deal their viewers its messaging in a blunt-force, baseball hit to the head.

That first episode brought in its characters under the public spotlight that a lot of police departments find themselves under, and we see them make arguments about how the public doesn’t understand the job and what it requires to undertake, and that the very nature of their work — special victims — means that they’ve been able to overcome their biases. Other episodes have brought up other instances of domestic abuse and murder amidst the city’s lockdown orders, and abuses of power as a powerful judge is accused of sexual abuse.

Ever since The Rookie debuted, I’ve seen commentary from police officers that say that the show gets how policing is carried out, and depicts it fairly accurately. (I’ve heard the same about the since-canceled series Southland, which I really wish was around in this moment.) And after Nolan gets out of his predicament in the first episode, the series has followed some similar territory as Law & Order: looking at the role that policing plays in society. One character, a Black rookie named Jackson West, is paired with a new training officer who harbors some racist views on the people of LA, while Nolan and his training officer, Nyla Harper, staff an LAPD Community relations center. Both stories serve as a look into how policing can harm the communities they serve.

Through these two depictions, both SVU and The Rookie sit at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to depicting this changing environment, and while both are drawing from the same source of inspiration, their success is predicated on how they implement those themes.

Cop shows are political by their very nature: they’re looking at the intersection between law and lawlessness, and how those laws are ultimately enforced. There’s a long tradition of seeing cops on TV enforcing the law, and as such, there’s a permeable wall between reality and what’s depicted on TV: neither are completely separate from one another.

When it comes down to it, what separates out the good shows from the bad comes down to how those showrunners and writers pay attention to detail. Not just the technical details that steer the shows to accurately depict the day-to-day fixtures of policing, but of the motivations and actions that help steer those officers and detectives in their day to day work.

For me, shows like the quasi-time travel series Life on Mars, The Wire, and Southland work well because they show the complexities in policing: cops face moral dilemmas and shades of grey in their work, often because of the system that they’re a part of. Law & Order does present a complicated picture of the world, but it’s often still framed in shades of black and white, with little second-guessing.

When it comes to policing on television now, what separates SVU and The Rookie is how they adopt and internalize the themes that are now around us. SVU largely treats the fallout from George Floyd’s death in superficial terms: we see people filming the cops while out on the job, we see them dealing with their biases, but they haven’t fundamentally changed the tone or intentions of the series. There’s some talk, but it doesn’t look like the show’s going to adopt any meaningful changes moving forward, other than changing the surroundings a bit (the same is true with incorporating COVID-19 into the series.)

By contrast, the writing team behind The Rookie seems to have taken last summer’s protests in stride. Each episode has handled some aspect of how the police use force and how they’re perceived in their communities as a core element and driving motivation for the characters — sometimes to their detriment.

While assigned to a community station, Nolan takes it upon himself to fix a locked and broken playground, without taking the time to find out why it’s in such a state. And in the last couple of episodes, Jackson has had to contend with a racist white police officer who’s demonstrating a clear pattern of behavior that’s now in the spotlight — and it’s putting some focus on how the system supports these cops.

The impact is clear when you watch the two shows: by choosing to center these themes, The Rookie becomes less of a celebration of policing to one that places grave consequences on the characters. Their actions and attitudes matter to the stories that they’re in, and as a result, it’s had me at the edge of my seat with each episode. SVU doesn’t have that same impact: it’s just another thing to watch, and while they’ve brought up the issue of bias (I’m guessing it’ll resurface), by treating it as an ancillary thing, we don’t have nearly the same emotional connection to the characters and their futures.

Ultimately, while watching some of these episodes recently, I keep thinking back on what Running from COPS covered over the course of its run: that COPS — as part of a much larger genre — plays some role in shaping the public perceptions of police departments in its depictions of how policing is handled.

According to Deadline, The Rookie production brought in Arisha Hatch of Color of Change, an advocacy group for Black people. She made an interesting observation about the very nature of cop shows: “conversations about racism or racism didn’t exist in those universes,” she said. That’s a critical point, because it means that save for rare exceptions — Life on Mars, Southland, and a couple of others — the genre has skewed away from handling those serious issues around race and police brutality that are a part of the national conversation. Law & Order is set to bring back Meloni in a new iteration of the franchise, Organized Crime — there’s also another series, Hate Crimes in development — , and it’ll be interesting to see if starting from scratch (and existing on a streaming service) will help lead to a fresher take.

And while cop shows don’t make up the entirety of a public’s education about how policing is handled, it does have an impact, and that by ignoring those deep-seated issues, those shows are doing their viewers something of a diservice by presenting a “realistic” world that isn’t all that realistic.

Hopefully, the events of 2020 will have a greater impact in writers’ rooms and amongst creators and prompt them to not only examine those issues, but to diversify those writers rooms and bring in new ideas and perspectives. If The Rookie has shown us anything this year, it’s that that approach makes for a solid hour of tense, thought-provoking drama.