Maybe It's Just Me, But...

Musings of a mildly mad multi-disciplinarian

Doink Doink! Casting an Academic Eye on "Law and Order"

How is Jack McCoy like Jack Bauer?

I just returned from the annual meetings of the Association for the Study of Law, Culture, and the Humanities (ASLCH) in Las Vegas. I know, what happens in Vegas is supposed to stay in Vegas, but I couldn't resist blogging about one session in particular: "20 Years of 'Law and Order.'"

Go on, click it... you know you want to. (To hear the classic spoken intro, click here.)

The conference session featured professors and students in a very loose, informal setting, discussing the longetivity, impact, and meaning of the timeless show. (Just to be clear, the session focused on the original "Law and Order" series, though comparisons and contrasts were made to the later varities such as "Law and Order: SVU.") Appropriately, given the interdisciplinary nature of the ASLCH meetings, the session was organized by Chaya Halberstam, a religious studies professor at King's University College, University of Western Ontario, and Ravit Reichman, an English professor at Brown University. The featured speakers were, in order of their presentations, Jacky O'Connor (literature, Boise State University), Roger Berkowitz (political science, Bard College), Annette Houlihan (criminology, Murdoch University School of Law), and William "Chip" Carter, Jr. (law, Temple University). (One of Professor Carter's colleagues at Temple happens to be David Hoffman, whose work I blogged about last year following a conference presentation.)

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After introductory comments by the organizers, Professor O'Connor noted two unique things about "Law and Order": its theatricality and the role that New York City itself plays in the show. A theater fan and scholar, O'Connor emphasized the two-act structure of the show, as well as the reliance on dialogue rather than action to advance the story. She also noted the location-specific nature of the show—for instance, how it would reveal the neighborhood and borough of each scene in typewriter font in the corner of the screen—and that the development of New York City over the last twnety years, especially in terms of gentrification, the decline in crime, and the changed atmosphere in the city after 9/11, could be observed over the life of the show.

Professors Houlihan and Carter each focused on the show's portrayal of social issues on the show. Houlihan's talk dealt with issues of HIV transmission; in particular, she discussed an episode dealing with an HIV-infected man who slept with women in order to infect them, which she criticized as misrepresenting the uncertain nature of HIV transmission, especially through intercourse. Also focusing on a particular episode, Carter discussed the depiction of racial issues on "Law and Order," especially regarding altercations between white and black characters, and how the show dealt with stereotypical representations of both, in terms of an episode dealing with interracial youth violence also involving their parents.

Most interesting to me was Professor Berkowitz's talk about the way prosecutors are protrrayed on the show, especially as compared to movies. After confessing to not being a fan of the show (which elicited more than a few chuckles from the audience), he admitted to watching the show only because he had been searching for movies that showed prosecutors in a positive light, as defenders of law and justice who try to see that criminals are punished, not as corrupt opportunists or government oppressors. After finding none (except Spencer Tracy's character in "Adam's Rib" from 1949!), a friend recommended that he watch "Law and Order," which he did. Berkowitz then wondered why the prosecutors on the show, like Ben Stone and Jack McCoy, seem to be popular and portrayed as admirable, whereas prosecutors in movies are universally slimy and corrupt.

His answer was intriguing: he argued that, true to the name of the show and its two-part nature, the prosecutors on "Law and Order" don't seek law, but instead order, a personalized version of justice that often sees the law as a mere technicality standing in its way. If you've watched the show, you know how it usually goes: the teaser (the part before the opening credits) reveals the crime (usually murder), the first half deals with the police detectives finding the most likely suspect, and the second half features the prosecutors trying to convict the suspect. But inevitably, something goes wrong during the trial: a key witness disappears, the smoking gun is ruled inadmissable as evidence, or the confession is thrown out as coerced. But this doesn't stop the prosecutors: they know the person is guilty, and they're not going to let the law get in the way of justice as they see it. To them, the law is not a mechanism for ensuring justice, but more often an impediment to it—and Berkowitz argues that this is exactly why viewers like them, because they don't want to see the law stand in the way of "justice."

We can think of lots of examples of this anti-authoritarianism in various forms of media: Dirty Harry shoots first and asks questions later, Jack Bauer uses whatever means necessary to extract information from those who have it, and Vic Mackey knows no limits in dealing with those he reagrded as being on the wrong side of the law. Also, superheroes like Batman, the Punisher, and Daredevil regularly operate outside of the law—Daredevil regularly tears through a seedy dive, thrashing people for information, and his alter ego, Matt Murdock, is a lawyer! Less violently, we have Doug Ross and Perry Cox, TV doctors who would never hesitate to violate hospital policy to make sure patients got the best care they could provide. For better or worse, we like seeing our heroes (or antiheroes) stand up to the cruel, heartless system or "the man" to achieve a higher sense of justice—and that's exactly what Ben Stone and Jack McCoy did on "Law and Order" every week. They "knew" who was guilty, and they would use whatever legal means necessary to make sure that the guilty were convicted.

And that's an important difference between our prosecutors and the other examples of self-styled justice that I mentioned: while Jack Bauer and Batman may be operating outside the law, McCoy and Stone use the law to achieve their own personal brand of justice. (In fact, it was noted during the general discussion following the presentations that none of the detectives or prosecutors on "Law and Order" are even slightly corrupt—can you imagine Lennie Briscoe roughing someone up?) Berkowitz detailed one episode dealing with two parents charged with their daughter's death, in which the evidence clearly showed that the mother had beaten the girl to death, but Stone was convinced that the father was truly responsible (suuposedly having influenced the mother to beat their child). Stone and his boss Adam Schiff strategized and agreed to cut a deal with the mother to convict the father, even though the mother was the more direct cause of the girl's death. Stone knew what he wanted, and he used the law to get it—and most of us applaud this, because some form of justice was done.

But even though we love to hate those legal technicalities, we should remember that they exist for a reason: to protect us. The Miranda warnings, the exclusionary rule (based on the rules about proper searches), and the ban on coerced confessions, for example, all help to make sure that criminal defendants (guilty or not) get fair trials. Though not perfect, and legal scholars debate their motivation and application endlessly, these rules go a long way towards protecting the innocent from wrongful conviction, and ensuring that those found guilty most likely are in fact guilty.

"Law and Order" has long been one of my favorite shows, and it was immensely gratifying to hear fellow academics express their love and admiration for the show as well, especially by doing what they do best—analyze and criticize. Doink doink!

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Mark D. White is the chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY.

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