Law and Order

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Jan 19 10:02:32 MST 2003

Although USA television presents itself in Newton Minow's memorable words
as a "vast wasteland", there is some product differentiation, just as you
will find different types of cactus in the Mojave versus the Painted Desert.

The original three "prestige" networks formed in the 1940s were CBS, NBC
and ABC, now owned by Viacom, General Electric and Disney respectively.
Their bread-and-butter is situation comedies geared to young white people,
with shows like "Seinfeld", "Cheers", "Friends", "Will and Grace", "Spin
City", etc. garnering huge audiences and hype. Even if these shows were
watchable, I couldn't tolerate them because of the insufferable canned
laughter that punctuates every exchange.

The other staple is cop shows, either set in a city like NY or Miami with
the local gendarmerie profiled, or based on a federal agency like the FBI
or CIA. Since 9/11 some of these shows have taken on an openly
propagandistic character. Last night "The Agency," based on the CIA, aired
a show on CBS that was described in the NY Times TV guide as follows:
"Stiles and Terri pursue a terrorist in the Gaza strip." I suspect that it
was not sympathetic to the cause of the Palestinian people.

One of the longest-running and most topical shows is NBC's "Law and Order",
which attempts to provide a more or less liberal viewpoint. This is
constrained obviously by the very nature of the show, which sides with the
District Attorney and detectives whom the viewers are meant to identify
with. Nearly every show ends with a conviction.

A typical "Law and Order" might dramatize a random killing of the sort that
take place occasionally in NYC, when a former mental patient pushes
somebody on the subway tracks for example. Although the show is sure to
include a mental health professional who makes the case for better support,
the perpetrator is seen as worthy of conviction. Generally speaking, the
show might be said to reflect the sensitivity of the white middle-class
Democratic Party voter who crossed over to vote somewhat sheepishly for
Giuliani because things had gotten "out of hand".

The original "Law and Order" has spawned two offshoots. One is titled "Law
and Order: Special Victims Unit", which includes episodes involving elder
abuse, child smuggling, a female serial killer disguised as a prostitute,
the dangers of the child welfare system, and whether children who have
committed heinous crimes should be tried as adults and incest. Sort of like
Oprah Winfrey crowned by a billy club. The oddest touch is comedian Richard
Belzer cast as a truculent detective. In real life Belzer is a radical who
can be heard on WBAI asking people to send in money to support the
cop-hostile station.

The latest spin-off is "Law and Order: Criminal Intent," which is virtually
identical to the original but with a different cast of characters. Most
noteworthy is Vincent D'Onofrio as Detective Robert Goren, a character who
evokes Colombo's (Peter Falk) plebian oafishness, but stripped of comedy.
Both the Goren character and Detective Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) from the
original show appear influenced by Detective Eddie "Popeye" Doyle (Gene
Hackman) in "The French Connection", who while wolfing down a hot-dog in
the rain, stakes out his aristocratic drug-dealing prey through the window
of luxurious French restaurant.

As far as I know, this is D'Onofrio's first regular TV gig. He is an
especially gifted and versatile film actor with a long career who was
featured as the bug from outer space in "Men and Black" and as the
brutalized army recruit in Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket".

In a sign of the changing times, last night's show (originally aired last
May) drew sharp class lines around a criminal conspiracy drawn from recent
Wall Street scandals. In the opening scene, a top accountant of a company
clearly based on Enron confronts her boss with what she views as a
questionable quarterly earnings report. She refuses to sign the report
until the inflated profits are adjusted to meet the foundering company's
true financial situation.

In the convoluted plot, the top executives frame her in the murder of her
boy friend and then blackmail her into signing the report in exchange for
providing a witness that will free her. All this is incredible, but
necessary for the show's boilerplate.

The most interesting aspects involve D'Onofrio penetrating through the
bogus finances in the process of nailing the oily CEO. In a striking scene
that takes place in the interrogation room of the police station, they go
back and forth over whether the company was part of a "bubble" that was now
bursting. The CEO assures D'Onofrio that the bubble never bursts, it only
recedes and grows based on the hopes and expectations that the American
people have in the capitalist system, which he names specifically.

We shall see.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list:

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