Law & Ordocki Season 5 #1 (#35): Benson Like Me
Well, it’s the 22nd season of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and a lot has happened since the 21st ended. Approximately 463 black people were murdered by the police and a pandemic shut down the country, except the times and places it didn’t and people just got sick and died thanks to excessive amounts of freedom. “Guardians and Gladiators”, being the thesis statement of SVU’s newest year, sees fit to address as much of 2020 as possible in as little time as possible. The result is a fitfully funny, fitfully enraging hour of television that sinks the series to new lows. In the offseason a lot of thinkpieces emanated, wondering how in this year could network television still produce police procedurals without acknowledgement that American policing is the direct descendant of slave catching patrols and morally/ethically bankrupt at its very foundation. It should go without saying these thinkpiece writers are idiots, because they fail to realize there’s nothing saying these shows have to be any good. It’s easy not reconciling the implicit biases in policing with your television show if it’s a piece of shit! Granted, SVU does try… but it does so in a hamfisted, shall we say SVUian fashion. Plus, all your favorite characters are back: Olivia Benson. Ice-T. The Gambler. Detective ADA. The police chief because even though Olivia’s the boss now she still needs an authority figure to be self-righteous against. No, no Munch. Munch is gone, baby. Munch is never coming back.
This suggests the writers are capable of thinking up original situations, which is patently false.
The central headline that “Guardians and Gladiators” rips is the ‘Central Park Karen’ incident, in which Amy Cooper called the cops on Christian Cooper (a black gentleman) after he took issue with her dog being off its leash. Now, because of the time dilation created by this unusual year, this incident feels like it took place 15 years ago. What’s next, an episode about fucking Tiger King? (Look, I’d honestly accept such a thing, because it would hearken back to when SVU did a wildlife trafficking ring disruption show a decade ago. Remember when Cragen saved the monkey from the basketball?) If SVU continues to go this route they’ll be playing an embarrassing catchup the entire season. To an extent that always happens, but 2020 in particular is so packed with stupid/crazy/evil shit that viewers will strain to remember with what the show purports to stay relevant.
Originally she was wearing a dunce cap and an “I’m With Stupid” pointing upwards t-shirt but the director thought it was a touch too obvious. Still, this is what they went with. Why not fucking animate her while you’re at it? Have little birds flying around her head.
Anyway, the twist on the situation is over the course of it the Amy Cooper stand-in’s kid finds a semi-conscious dude in the bushes, thereby fulfilling the “rape” part of the show’s credo. “I’m not one of those Karens”, she says, while totally being one of those Karens. The opening scene is actually pretty interesting from a filmmaking point of view because it edits together bodycam footage, cell phone footage and then the widescreen “objective” cinematography of the show. If you’re going to shovel the same shit at me week after week, at least give me different angles. Maybe film an entire episode from the perspective of Ice-T’s oversized novelty hat, I don’t know. The cops don’t know if Christian Cooper stand-in (Jayvon) has something to do with the assaulted guy or not, but he has open warrants so cuff him, boys! From here the episode splits into two halves: The Rape of Eric and Should We Arrest All Black Guys?. Each is terrible for different reasons.
It took *three* people to write this shit?
In The Rape of Eric they find out Eric is a confirmed bachelor, a man with a long handshake, a friend of Dorothy, a flaming homosexual. It does not square with his Filipino Catholic family, so he remains as closeted as Charles Nelson Reilly. They find footage of him leaving a bar with someone who was at the park that morning…not Jayvon. It was the white guy filming while yelling “defund the police!” the entire time! After they take his DNA off his mask, they ask him if he’s going to be a match. White Guy puts forth some story about the guy saying “pretend I’m a girl” and unzipping his pants, to which he freaked out and knocked Eric over. Fortunately, the owner of the bar white guy was caught commiserating with Eric at is schtupping the mom and hired him a lawyer. They’re willing to plead to misdemeanor assault but Carisi doesn’t go for it.
Should We Arrest All Black Guys? intersects with The Rape of Eric but becomes about larger issues. After leaving custody, the guy files a lawsuit against NYPD and names both Benson and Ice-T. When they complain to their boss that the arrest was “by the book”, he shouts “THAT’S THE BOOK THAT GOT US HERE!”. He then explains that after George Floyd, after Breonna Taylor, etc. I want to be a person who gets all their information solely from SVU, because I want to see how that person interprets the world. “The police can’t rough up black guys anymore because it makes the chief yell at Olivia.” When she’s interviewed by the Internal Affairs Bureau, conveniently personified by a black woman, Olivia again is made to own up to her implicit biases. IAB sounds like a combination of a therapist and that book White Fragility, treating racism as original sin and saying everyone needs to do a “self-inventory” so people will regain their trust in the NYPD. “I’m not a racist”, sez Benson, and if I still drank I’d do a drinking game of her saying something to that effect. One would be pretty buzzed by the end of the hour.
This shitshow comes to a head, and the two halves combine, with the grand jury. Ice-T takes Benson’s place in the hopes that a black man and the star of one of the better Leprechaun movies would take less heat than a white lady. The thing about a grand jury is it’s basically a heckler free for all on open mic night, as jurists rip into the police for arrested Jayvon and Ice-T specifically for shooting a black guy last season. If he or Carisi knew how to deal with hecklers the grand jury would’ve turned out differently. But they don’t so it’s a “trainwreck”, as Carisi puts it. “Guardians and Gladiators” sucks bull testicles but from an ironic standpoint it’s pretty funny. You’ve got Ice-T accusing Carisi being a racist because he’s from Staten Island, Carisi yelling at Ice-T for his shitty testimony and Rollins trying to keep the peace.
Get ready to see the cops make a lot of this face while people are yelling at them.
Ultimately the white guy, who is basically what you get if you cast for Dennis Reynolds on an NBC version of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, testifies at the grand jury and outs himself as bisexual. He and Eric hooked up in the park. End of story. He only admitted to a completely different series of events because he was “coerced”. “The cops are lying to you”, he implores. See: another byproduct of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor et al.: grand juries won’t trust cops and will instead trust 25 year olds who still live with their mother! (Creepy.) They’re played as credulous saps who will believe any yarn the guy spins, and the result is no indictment. Everyone’s mad. The victim didn’t get justice and everyone thinks everyone at NYPD is racist. Even precious little goblin Noah, who asks “are you a racist?” to Olivia in what is hands down the funniest fucking scene of the episode. Mom, the Internet says you’re racist! Whaddya say about that? In the end, Benson goes to visit Jayvon in spite of him having a lawsuit against her. See, that’s not important. What’s important is for Benson to commit to doing better. Remember, this is a show about Mariska Hargitay’s fucking ego first and foremost.
When Olivia is not around, characters should be asking “where’s Olivia?”.
Dramatically it’s a terrible episode of television, little more than 40 minutes of the characters learning about this uncool thing called ‘racism’ that’s been bandied about lately. I suppose the salient question this episode tries to answer is IS BENSON RACIST? She admits to some biases, but those only exist because she’s so focused on the victims she ignores everything else. She’s so goddamn good at her job it’s resulted in unconscious detrimental racial attitudes! But at least we know the real victim of this is that white woman; as she tells her boss, she’s “reeling” and didn’t sleep a wink last night. It continues with the hagiography of St. Olivia, that racism is primarily a hindrance to her disrupting kiddie porn rings and the like. The audience is supposed to be yelling “Goddamnit, just give her an N-word pass so she can go back to doing what she does best!” at the screen. Ice-T even says “I’ve worked with Captain Benson for over 20 years. Her only bias is for the victims”. Gag me with a spoon.
While it’s definitely worth exploring the implicit and explicit biases in policing against the modern day movement of minority self-determination, I don’t think SVU is such a good venue for this for reasons outlined previously. It’d be like if The Simpsons did an episode about Chief Wiggum pulling over Dr. Hibbert for driving while black and Lou being caught between loyalty to his job and his identity as an African-American. Although Simpsons writers could probably wring more humor out of that scenario than SVU’s can pathos out of their take on the Central Park Karen. This show is a cartoon, and in recent years a boring cartoon. The writers aren’t up to the task of delivering meaningful sociopolitical commentary so they shouldn’t even try. Stick to wacky shit like “what if a tiger ate a rapper” and “Norman Reedus is a rock star Tom Cruise telling kids not to take their medication”.
Something that bothered the shit out of me was the show’s usage of masks. Dick Wolf et al do not seem to understand when people wear masks and why people wear masks. In the first scene, Olivia Benson walks onto the premises wearing a mask and then takes it off when she has to converse with other officers, the victim, witnesses, etc. What? If anything the opposite should be happening. No mask when you’re not around people and a mask when you’re in other people’s faces. This happens again and again. Officer Kat tries to ride in the ambulance with the victim but the EMTs rebuff her, saying “sorry, COVID”. Things don’t get any better from there. Sure, there are touches like Carisi going to town on some hand sanitizer, people getting temperature checked at the precinct, and the cops wearing masks while at the hospital, but overall the adherence to safety protocols is shoddy at best. Then again, I remain unconvinced the writers of this show have interacted with other human beings in the last 10 years so I suppose the discrepancy makes sense. If they’re going to continue in the “now” then they’re going to have to sort this shit out pretty fucking quick. The biggest issue with the mask is that it’s ubiquitous enough to not be tacked on window dressing and that makes the inconsistencies all the more glaring and annoying.
From the mouths of babes!
My final verdict with any SVU episode concerns whether or not it’s funny to watch. SVU was never exactly “good” so judging it against the standard rubric is insufficient. On the whole I’d have to say “Ghosts and Goblins” or whatever the fuck this episode is called is not up to the task. It frames racism as an individual issue that must be reckoned with on that scale and the twist on the Central Park Karen incident, that the Karen had a record of false accusations, does not compare to other SVU twists. For example, the very episode mentions the time Paula Deen killed Trayvon Martin. That was a good mash up, it was like a fucking Girl Talk track. The rape case only exists in service of the larger issue of racism amongst the NYPD so it’s not very entertaining either. A few moments did make me laugh, like when Noah asks Olivia if she was a racist, or really any time any white character is accused of being racist. That’s dynamite. More of that. I want Rollins to have to explain why her ringtone is “Dixie” if she’s not a racist. If television’s going to be dragged into the already tedious thinkpiece generation complex they might as well do it in an entertaining fashion. Again, this is never gonna be good, so it may as well be funny.
WEAR A FUCKING MASK YOU TOOLBAGS
I’ll try to be better at churning out these columns on a more regular basis, and I will peek in at Season 22 from time to time when inspiration strikes. I stupidly bought all the DVDs off eBay so now nothing is stopping me from writing about any of Law & Order: SVU’s 793 episodes. Wherever something is considered especially heinous, I’ll be there.