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The Curious Appeal of ‘Law & Order,’ the Show That’s Always On
01.18.19

“If you don’t call me to talk about Law & Order, our friendship is over.”

That is an actual text I got from one of my best friends after she heard I was looking into the curiously enduring popularity of the series. When it comes to one of the most loved primetime TV franchises in history, people clearly have feelings.

Created by Dick Wolf in 1990, the original Law & Order (the “mothership,” to insiders) is a police and legal procedural that divided its time between “two separate but equally important groups: The police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders.”

NBC canceled the show in 2010 after 20 years, but there’s no denying its wild popularity: It was named one of the greatest shows of all time by the likes of both Rolling Stone and TV Guide (twice — in 2002 and 2013). Fan or not, it’s hard to ignore the franchise’s overwhelming TV presence. The original series went into syndication in the mid 90s and currently enjoys syndication deals with multiple cable networks — it really is, as one fan told me, “always on.”

Not only is the original airing all the time, it has spawned multiple spinoffs that have met varying levels of success: Neither Law & Order: Trial By Jury (2005) nor Law & Order: LA (2010) ran for more than one season, but Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2001) enjoyed 10 years on TV airwaves and garnered a large fanbase of its own. My own mother, who was not a huge Law & Order fan to begin with, became obsessed with Criminal Intent and was particularly attached to the “idiosyncrasies of Vincent D’Onofrio’s character — especially regarding the way he interacted with his briefcase.” (She assures me that any Criminal Intent fans reading this will know what she means.)

There was also a British version (Law & Order: UK, 2009-2014) and an anthology version (Law & Order: True Crime) that aired one season in 2017 but has not returned since. It currently exists in the liminal space of TV land — not yet canceled, but also not yet renewed.

Of course, the most popular spinoff by far is Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) which debuted in 1999. Currently in its 20th season (and on course to outrun the original), it’s the only version still produced today. SVU and its parent, Law & Order, share the title for second-longest-running scripted primetime TV series in the US. As you probably know, episodes of both iterations are often “ripped from the headlines,” which I suspect might have something to do with these versions’ success.

“I think that, as a woman but also as a rape survivor, it’s very comforting to see a ‘correct’ cyclical version of events. Bad man does bad thing, is captured and punished. Justice is served,” says Sara, 23, sharing her thoughts on why people love the show so much. “Especially as it didn’t happen like that for me.”

Writer and historian Jacqui Shine, who has a PhD from UC Berkeley and whose research focuses on police and popular culture, tells me that the franchise is so well-liked for that very reason: “In a basic way, we love stories about social disorder and violence that end well — or at least neatly. It suggests in ways conscious and unconscious that the world we live in is a fundamentally safe place that operates according to consistent principles.” Simply put, it’s soothing to viewers. “It also allows us to believe in the moral order of the justice system, regardless of whether there’s a conflict between that perception and reality.”

I saw that conflict reflected in a plethora of answers from self-proclaimed fans when I asked them how watching Law & Order has affected their understandings of the criminal justice system. “I think for lots of people, L&O has set up kind of unrealistic expectations of criminal prosecution,” says Terri Coleman, 32.

According to Jacqui Shine, this is true. “Law & Order (O.G. in particular) way overrepresented the number of cases that actually make it to trial. It also may overrepresent how often people under arrest invoke their Miranda rights. 85% of people arrested waive their Miranda rights entirely, but we see a lot of defense attorneys interceding in interrogations in that universe.”

Misrepresentations of the criminal justice system aside, there are many who believe that Law & Order has positively impacted the broader cultural conversation around sex crimes. A 2015 study suggests that the franchise is educating viewers about rape — even that exposure to Law & Order was associated with lower acceptance of rape myths and greater education around (and practice of) consent.

And what about SVU in particular — what’s going on there? “There’s a complex set of messages about gender embedded there that have a lot of appeal,” Shine tells me. For example, Shine suggests that the show may attract broad audiences “because it stresses normative messages about nuclear family structures.”

Thankfully, starring in a show that stresses normative messages has done nothing to affect Mariska Hargitay’s status as a queer icon — not only do we celebrate Benson’s butchiness, we love her like she’s one of our own. “Olivia Benson was even one of the roots of my queerness,” shares Emily, 32. “My friends in uni knew I was gay before I did because of how much I idolized her.”

“I don’t watch the show but I know Mariska’s on it because of how much the queer community loves her,” my girlfriend said to me the other night.

“Butch Olivia Benson > Femme Olivia Benson” proclaimed one superfan plainly.

Of course, I polled dozens of other superfans and their reason for loving the show aren’t always couched in considerations of criminal justice or queerness:

“I was a teenager when I started watching. I would masturbate to ANYTHING. And that shit stays with you,” one fan who would like to remain nameless tells me when I ask about her attachment to the show. “Now if this show is on a screen I am almost literally powerless to not engage.”

How about you — can you imagine a world in which the Law & Order “dun dun” doesn’t exist? Would you ever want to? If exploring this taught me anything, it’s that Law & Order, in all its permutations, offers touchpoints to a really wide swath of folks. And that sex sells, even when it’s scary. The jury might still be out on why this franchise is so wildly popular — is it just a unique cultural phenomenon or do we all just have a deep, unconscious love for Ice-T? — but I’d love if you met me in the comments to turn over the evidence.

Feature photo by Virginia Sherwood © NBC / Courtesy Everett Collection; Graphics by Emily Zirimis.

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