Lunchtable TV Talk: Law & Order SVU

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“When did we become the voices of reason?” (SVU’s Olivia Benson as portrayed by Mariska Hargitay to Ice-T’s Detective Fin Tutuola)

Det Tutuola: “Sooner or later, we play all the parts.”

The endless Law & Order crime-and-punishment franchise is standard but solid fare, generally speaking – something one can play in the background without paying much attention. But Special Victims Unit (SVU), despite following the same template, is not as easy to ignore. I recently started watching the later seasons of the show, and find myself increasingly disgusted but still intrigued by the bigger picture. SVU shows a world that is very dangerous – with unseen risks lurking around every corner and potentially in every person you meet. It’s an ugly, brutal, pain-filled, cruel world – particularly for women and children. Is the world really like this? Or are shows like SVU making us more paranoid that we live in a world that is more fraught with danger than it really is? Is the show desensitizing us to real horrors? I started asking these questions as I watched episode after episode, and found out I am not alone. A recent Slate article posed similar queries, as the 17th season of the show premiered – the only one among the once large L&O family still on TV. Is the show, the article asks, “inevitably exploitative and fear-mongering?”

“…some story lines get downright creepy—like the arc involving sadist and serial rapist/murderer William Lewis, which ran over six episodes between May 2013 and April 2014. SVU was pretty explicit about the horrific things Lewis, played by Pablo Schreiber, did to the women he kidnapped and abused. “Some people were legitimately disturbed by those episodes,” Leight admitted. They were also “by far the most popular” of the nearly 100 episodes in the Leight era. “I will say, unequivocally, the audience prefers the more overtly dangerous ones,” he says. It’s impossible to diagnose exactly why, of course, though Leight speculates that it could be that the mostly female audience finds it cathartic to watch “these disturbing guys get caught, as opposed to real life, where they often aren’t.”

Personally, I doubt it is completely attributable to catharsis. I think some of it is that people are voyeurs. People like being disturbed… and some are disturbed.

I do in fact think a lot about the justice system, gender, sexuality and law v moral “norms” and all kinds of things as a result of watching the show. An interesting aspect of the show is character development. Most of the L&O series have been procedural and focused very little on the characters’ personal lives, and even though SVU delves further into the personal histories and problems of its characters, it never becomes a soap opera or character drama. We can see, for example, that Hargitay’s Benson is often driven by her own history and though skilled, sympathetic and a tireless, vocal advocate for victims, she is just as likely to be blind to the big picture, pursuing suspected perpetrators and refusing to see any evidence that doesn’t support her theory of who the criminal is, which we see leading to the ruin of innocent suspects. Luckily in later seasons, we’ve seen this counterbalanced by the character Amanda Rollins, whose own imperfections and experience lead her to question motivations and seek insight around Benson’s sizable blind spots. Interestingly the show provides a balanced view of the sensitive nature of these kinds of heinous crimes and how the law enforcement and justice system handles investigations and suspects.

Lunchtable TV Talk: The Brink

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Eager to find out how The Brink, a satirical comedy focused on a geopolitical crisis that ignites in Pakistan, ends, I keep watching. It’s a relatively funny journey – not too taxing or challenging given the political story (which can bog down shows attempting to be “light”, as this one aims to be). What sets this show apart is its stellar ensemble cast. Just when I get pulled into the scenes with the incorrigible, frenetic Jack Black and his driver, played by the multitalented Aasif Mandvi, the shift focuses to the sex-obsessed, liberal but never-taking-his-eye-off-the-ball US Secretary of State, played to perfection by Tim Robbins. But the show also has somewhat smaller but still standout roles for Pablo Schreiber, Carla Gugino (who also turned in a good performance recently in Wayward Pines) and John Larroquette.

On an entirely unrelated note, Larroquette’s presence sent me off on a nostalgic mental parade of past television, including Larroquette on the 80s sitcom classic, Night Court, of which he was the best part. But Night Court also included Harry Anderson, a most non-descript guy who nevertheless carved out a niche for himself as a magic aficionado and as a night-court judge, as a frequent guest star in Cheers and in the 80s/90s sitcom Dave’s World, based on the life of comedy writer, Dave Barry. And my twisted obituary-laced brain immediately recalls that Dave’s World’s Meshach Taylor (also famous for his turn as Anthony the ex-con in Designing Women) is dead – too young. Going back to Night Court, once again, whatever happened to Markie Post, the female lead in the show? Back in the 1990s she was in a little-watched but nevertheless entertaining Hearts Afire with the late John Ritter. (Of course my brain would lead me here – always the grim reaper.) Hearts Afire ended up being about a married couple working on a hometown newspaper in the south, but it started off being thematically not too different from Alpha House and The Brink – without the farce, of course. Incidentally, Hearts Afire also starred Billy Bob Thornton. But people were not quite ready for Billy Bob yet.

In some ways, ensemble shows like The Brink, as topical and sharp as they are, end up making me more interested in making connections – playing some kind of six-degrees-of-Kevin Bacon connect-the-dots. Obviously. Nothing about the unfolding crisis and underhanded political rivalries playing out in high-stakes, behind-the-scenes conflicts should lead someone to forgotten two-season sitcoms like Hearts Afire. But for a TV-crazed lunatic like me, they do.

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