John Oliver tackled the influential discrepancy between reality and on-screen fantasy in Law & Order, the “king of cop shows” with over 1,200 episodes among its many specials and spin-offs.
Law & Order, which returned this February after a 12-year hiatus, and its spin-offs, all created by producer Dick Wolf, is comfort TV that has real impact, the Last Week Tonight host said. Viewers of crime dramas are more likely to believe that police are successful at lowering crime, use force only when necessary, and that misconduct does not typically lead to false confessions.
“It can be genuinely alarming just how seriously some people take this show,” Oliver said, noting that Warren Leight, former executive producer of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, once said that many cops learn how to handle sexual assault cases by watching SVU.
Oliver touched on the history of television about law enforcement, in which “the line between cop shows and actual cops has always been deliberately blurred” dating back to Dragnet. That show, which premiered in 1951, opened with a disclaimer that “the story you’re about to see is true” and offered LAPD script approval in exchange for support and props.
“The ‘these are their stories’ part there is really important, because a big selling point for Law & Order is that, similar to Dragnet, it draws inspiration from real, live cases,” Oliver explained. Wolf once said the bible of Law & Order was the front page of the New York Post and, like Dragnet, Law & Order employed NYPD officers as consultants.
The cozy relationship is reflected on-screen – one Law & Order writer anonymously told the New York Times in 2020 that there was a pervasive feeling among staff that if the police were portrayed in a negative light, the NYPD “could make it very difficult for us to shoot in New York”.
“It does make sense, doesn’t it?” Oliver said. “The NYPD is famously anti-shooting unless they’re the ones doing it.”
“In fact, for as much as Dick Wolf brags about how the show is written in shades of gray, or how it will show both sides of an issue, there is one side that is always on, and that’s the police,” he added. “Because however flawed his characters may be, they’re all fundamentally pursuing justice, and cops love being portrayed that way.”
Law & Order’s close collaboration with police consultants allows it to get “a lot of smaller details right, like specific laws, jargon, and crime scene procedures”, he continued. “But crucially, it also makes a lot of choices that significantly distort the bigger picture of policing.” Most episodes arrest the correct perpetrator at the midpoint and convict them in the conclusion when in reality, many cases go unsolved, and most of the ones that do end in plea deals; 97% of all criminal cases don’t go to trial.
“Obviously, Law & Order cannot reflect that reality,” Oliver said. “It would be unwatchable. Nobody wants to watch a show where 97% of episodes end with two lawyers striking a deal in a windowless room and then you get to watch the defendant serve six months then struggle to get a job at their local Jiffy Lube.”
The show predominantly takes the side of prosecutors while disparaging defense attorneys; as Wolf once said in a 1998 interview, “I believed the heroes weren’t the defense attorneys who were getting these scumbags off. The heroes were the prosecutors.”
“You can absolutely justify those decisions by saying ‘come on, they’re making fiction, not a documentary. Not everyone wants to watch hyper-realistic portrayals of our ever-dessicating society, John,’” Oliver noted. “And I do understand that, but it’s not just the portrayals of defense lawyers where big editorial decisions are being made.”
One 2021 study found that offenders on Law & Order were “disproportionately white, male, older and from the middle or upper classes,” and “you can see why [Wolf] might not want to make a show in which his good-guy cops are disproportionately targeting communities of color – he wants people to like them,” Oliver explained.
But Wolf’s editorial decisions mean that “instead of depicting a flawed system riddled with structural racism, the show presents exceptionally competent cops working within a largely fair framework that mostly convicts white people.”
Though the show has occasionally focused on individual bad cops or shoehorned in real-world critiques of law enforcement, especially in light of the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, “in general, police reforms are often portrayed by the main characters as at best a nuisance to them, and at worst, a threat to public safety.”
The Law & Order universe “is never going to grapple with the reality of policing in a meaningful way … because fundamentally, the person who is responsible for Law & Order and its brand is Dick Wolf, and he knows exactly what he wants his shows to do and, importantly, not to do,” Oliver said.
“It’s completely fine to enjoy it,” he added, “and it’s completely understandable to want [Law & Order: SVU detective] Olivia Benson to exist. But it is important to remember just how far it is from representing anything resembling reality.”
Law & Order presents “a world where the cops can always figure out who did it, defense attorneys are irritating obstacles to be overcome, and even if a cop roughs up a suspect, it’s all in pursuit of a just outcome,” Oliver concluded. “And it blasts that fantasy at you in endless reruns and marathons in the guise of very well-produced, extremely entertaining TV. But underneath it all, it is a commercial – a commercial produced by a man who is, in his own words, unabashedly pro-law enforcement.”