Law & Ordocki Season 3 #2 (#25): Pre-9/11 Tension
I thought that for the momentous 25th occasion of Law & Ordocki I ought to go back to the beginning with SVU: its inaugural season. A simpler time for the show and a simpler time for America. It was before 9/11 for fuck’s sake. This particular episode, “Chat Room”, aired on April 14th, 2000. Back then, Ice-T was known for surviving the game in Surviving the Game and a little show called Oz was still on the air, preventing Dean Winters from appearing as his SVU character Brian Cassidy past the first 13 episodes. I’m sure some other things were different in 2000 as opposed to now but I mainly focus on the important stuff. “Chat Room” is really SVU’s first reckoning with the wonderful, horrible place and utility we call the world wide web, and it is about what you expect from a writers’ room of 50 year olds who still think the flying toasters in the screensaver are coming at them. The only reason the show has improved slightly at depicting technology and modern culture is attrition; writers have been put on an ice floe and pushed away, replaced by ones whose childhoods weren’t filled with measles and episodes of Howdy Doody.
Like Monique Jeffries, the skyline doesn’t last long.
Paz de la Huerta is calling her mom for a ride because she’s just been assaulted. At the hospital she explains to the distractingly fresh faced Benson and Stabler that her rapist wasn’t a stranger, not exactly. “We met in a chat room.” “Oh, like on the Internet.” “Yeah. He seemed decent enough by e-mail and everything.” The rapist doesn’t have a name, only one of those cool Internet handles we all use. “The Yachtsman.” “I thought with a name like that he’d be a gentleman. Shows you how wrong you can be.” BAM! Cut to opening credits! Unlike in later seasons, the cops don’t immediately take the victim at her word and require things like “evidence” and “corroboration”, so Benson and Stabler make her retrace her ride that resulted in rape. Meanwhile, Munch and Monique Jeffries (remember her?) delve into this whole “computer” thing. Paz’s father is initially reluctant to turn over his computer because he’s got a number of naked women posing with big cats photos on there. If that’s not a justification to lock someone up I don’t know what is. The mother, played by Elaine’s roommate Tina on Seinfeld, strip searches her for evidence of sexual activity on a regular basis. No wonder she’s jumped into the arms of a Yachtsman or men given her volatile home life.
RIGHT FUCKING NOW
Turns out she was making it up, conjuring a story about rape via Internet personality to cover for her consensual sex with her 21 year old boyfriend. Something I like about these early episodes is they have to introduce concepts we take for granted, like “statutory rape”. Stabler gives the guy a tough talking to but college boyfriend’s involvement doesn’t end here. While the Yachtsman may just be some lolcow Paz and her friends fuck with, he still is a pervert talking to underage girls. Apparently he has whole manifestos justifying “May/December relationships” and sends unsolicited shots of him with other girls. “I don’t need to look at this crap.” Cragen corrects him: “It’s evidence, Elliot.” Glad we’ve defined what child pornography is to the Special Victims Unit.
“I played a pedophile on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit!” is up there in terms of worst Tinder pick up lines.
The detectives (the pretty ones, not the B-team of the guy from Homicide and the black woman) first seek assistance from the ISP. They’re more than happy to give away a customer’s information without even a threatened warrant, leaving Benson to enthuse “the Internet’s like a gigantic tape recorder that runs 24 hours a day”. I guess questioning the encroachment of our privacy rights and civil liberties is Munch’s territory, but it’s still odd how cool everyone is with reading off a guy’s web history. No one thinks to ask why the ISP doesn’t do anything if they know for a fact a customer is involving themselves in child porn. (Given in real life it took Barry Crimmins shaming everyone it’s probably not right to rake SVU over the coals.) The suspect has a menagerie of interests: underage sites, programming sites, music sites (Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees), gambling and, of course, bidding on used teen panties. The Yachtsman’s real name is Harry Waters, which explains why he uses an Internet handle. “Harry Waters” has no use as your name unless you’re in the porn industry – the legitimate adult porn industry. He left his last job because the company took a celebratory trip to Cuba and instead of seeing that famous 1999 Baltimore Orioles/Cuban National Team exhibition game, Yachtsman stayed in his hotel room and fucked a 12 year old. Forcing this guy who plays the former co-worker to say the line “you want good time too?” makes this episode worthwhile. For some reason the company held on to a former employee everyone strongly suspected of being a pedophile’s computer, keeping it in the corner of an office. Unless they were anticipating the cops coming around someday I have no goddamn clue why they housed what indeed is a repository of child pornography. Seems like a contrivance designed to further the plot, which of course is alien to an episode of SVU.
Harvey Weinstein sees this episode and goes “see! She lied about it once!”
Again, if there need be any justification for this hour of television, it’s that actors were convinced to read out file names such as “girl love hot 14 horny teen”, “father daughter love fest”, “alt.sex.teen” and so on. I wouldn’t doubt it if the actors had no idea what the fuck they were saying in these instances, learning their lines phonetically like it was a foreign language; in fact, it’s somewhat comforting. I don’t want to imagine a 2000 Dann Florek knowing the in’s and out’s of online messaging. Anyway, the Yachtsman is smart enough to actually store all his child pornography on a friend’s computer, even though I’m not really sure that’s how these things work. Who the hell stores other people’s files for them as a favor? This friend is none other than Paz de la Huerta’s boyfriend, proving the first ten minutes of the episode weren’t a complete waste of time. He folds after a classic Stabler outburst (“they’re just pictures, man” “THEY’RE NOT JUST PICTURES!!!”) and confesses that what began as a simple instance of posting an ex’s nudes out of spite became an amateur child pornography industry. The demand was so high, you know? “Chat Room” is prescient in that it establishes this guy’s empire is based in net cash, “untraceable cyber bucks” that we now recognize as the libertarian totem of cryptocurrency.
For a child porn millionaire he’s still clinging to the “Home Improvement son” look.
Nothing dates television more than Munch’s insistence that sex is the second most searched for term on the Internet, the first being PAM ANDERSON. I’m just a simple Midwestern boy whose puberty manifested in obsession with the likes of Janeane Garofalo, but I really don’t know what the fuck you guys were thinking back then. Munch finds the Yachtsman in a chat room (hey that’s the name of the episode!!!) offering tips on how teenage girls can steal Prozac from their parents. I speak from personal experience when I say that PROZAC WILL NOT GET YOU HIGH. Good thing the opioid epidemic happened or else these kids would still be popping lithium thinking it was gonna get them low. This serial offender who makes sure no hard evidence is tied to him certainly does like to make plans to meet a supposed girl after talking to her for about a minute, and that’s how they arrest the creep. Rookie mistake, man. I’ve known Beth for years and I still fear she’ll turn out to be David Parker Ray in real life. (David Parker Ray is better known as the Toybox Killer, not the guy who did the theme to Ghostbusters.)
GASP! He knows exactly what teens want to hear!
Attempting to meet Munch is all they have him on, and no amount of self-righteous yelling by the cops change that. Cragen asks “Do you have children?” in the face of Yachtsman’s black female defense attorney, who is vilified by the show for doing her job. It’s only Season 1’s commitment to realism that she doesn’t have a mustache to twirl. SVU would be satisfied only if all defense attorneys refused to take on guilty clients and public defenders cooperated with the district attorney to get their client the harshest possible sentence. Further, Cragen bellows “These are someone’s children, for God’s sake!” at Season 1 ADA Kathleen Eastman (whose actress would go on to play a judge on the show for many seasons), who responds “two years ago, I didn’t know my ass from Windows 95”. That’s why the detectives have to focus on the one bit of physical criminality, that of the used teen panties auctions. Ladies, gentlemen, get your barf bags ready.
Grandmothers are selling their granddaughters’ panties to perverts for profit. That really says it all, doesn’t it? They spin it as a moneymaking opportunity for senior citizens. To make matters worse, said granddaughter was propositioned by the Yachtsman because why win auctions for the milk (teen panties) when you can abuse the cow (the girl). Still the SVU has trouble making the case, because he never actually had sex with her, he just jerked off instead. (Cue remembrance of Dylan Baker in Happiness.) “Just the smell of him reminded me of my dad” the girl intones. Keep in mind the Yachtsman greatly resembles Kentucky senator and neighborly dispute loser RAND PAUL. They’re so desperate for a conviction they commit to lying – or roleplaying, as the captain puts it – that the girl accused him of rape. He’s eager to make a deal by ratting on his fellow pedophiles and that’s how a scene of Munch and Stabler drinking with kid touchers, waxing nostalgic about the girl who only put out until she got her own driver’s license. We learn so much about the subculture in these moments, like how pedophiles identify each other (if you’re a lone adult male at a roller rink, ask another lone adult male about their G rated movie opinions). The casting director did a good job in that every single guy in the meet up scene, even the extras, looks like they’re not allowed within 500 feet of schools. I wonder what kind of notice they put out for those roles. “Seeking white males aged 40-60. Outdated glasses preferred. Strong opinions on Thundercats a must.”
“I think actually Beast Machines is more thematically deep and involved than Beast Wars…”
There’s an utterly useless complication after the sting revealing that one or more of the pedophiles are actually undercover FBI agents, all to drive home the point that they are succeeding while law enforcement is failing because they work together. When I think pedophiles one of the first things that comes to mind is “teamwork”. SVU is also guilty of treating these guys like supervillains in that interrogation room scenes are license for them to gloat about how they cannot be stopped by mere human law, all to service the show’s desire to end on an ominous note that will no doubt scare the elderly people watching this shit. When kids leave me they’re all smiles, says one pedophile. Following is a card telling the audience just how many anonymous chat users are chatting on the Internet RIGHT NOW. If you have a gun, shoot your computer now. Only bullets can kill the evil computer while also keeping the demons inside.
I think the biggest outlier in “Chat Room” that separates it from what we consider to be Classic SVU is scenes set in Stabler’s home life. There’s minutes just of Elliot discussing the case with his wife Kathy. It’s refreshing, but it feels odd. I guess I’m so used to them being at each other’s throats that the two sitting on the couch, drinking wine and beer, is the SVU equivalent of that one episode of The Simpsons that colored Smithers black. The overall purpose of the scene appears to be that they’re white parents afraid of what the Internet can and will do to their white children. To underline the point, Kathy says “but they’re out there”, referring to predators. “Honey, they’re in here” as Meloni points behind him to the family computer. There’s so much groundwork laid for Stabler literally fighting a computer that it’s a shame it doesn’t happen.
Maureen is starring in her own Lifetime original movie about spam e-mails ruining her life.
Another Season 1 quirk: “Chat Room” uses a Stabler child besides Kathleen or Dickie! Let me explain. Stabler has five kids, four from the inception of the series and one born in Season 9. The show would most often feature either Kathleen (the bipolar second child) or Dickie (his only son until Elliot Jr.’s birth) when it came time to drain from the well of Stabler familial angst. For Elliot’s entrance onto the Internet and What It Can Do To Pervert Our Aryan Children, the show utilizes eldest Maureen. It may not mean much to you, but for me it’s the equivalent of uncovering a rare gemstone. It seems there’s a reason we don’t see too much of ol’ Maureen, and it’s because she’s a terrible actress. She appears in a couple of scenes and they’re excruciating YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND ME DAD histrionics. So what if your dad is reading your e-mail and puts on an net nanny that shuts down the entire computer? HE’S TRYING TO PROTECT YOU!!!
Stabler should really be taking his daughter to task for her facile analysis of Great Expectations.
While better from a technical standpoint, early SVU is still ridiculous alarmism that features the cops violating civil liberties, trampling over a suspect’s rights and justifying it with exclamation point filled tirades about the sick depravity of their quarry. Like, of course, they’re dudes who molest children, but if anyone should be cool headed and dispassionate about them it’s the police who investigate them for a living. Elliot Stabler’s “if someone hurts a child they should be RAPED AND BEATEN TO DEATH AND GIVEN THE CHAIR AND HANGED AND EATEN BY RATS COVERED IN AIDS” is an attitude best left in newspaper comments sections. I guess it could be worse. They could be more in tune to the reality of American policing, by which I mean every episode would either begin or end with one of them shooting and killing an unarmed black man.