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21 Mars 2023

“These are their stories”: 20 years of U.S. history, according to Law & Order
Publié par Erik Adams dans A.V. Club le 09/09/15.

“In the criminal justice system,” begins Law & Order’s iconic voice-over introduction, “the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders.” Between the years 1990 and 2010, these separate, yet equally important groups also tracked the preoccupations, dreads, anxieties, and news stories that consumed the American public. Future scholars who want to know what was on the minds of a nation at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st could do much worse than consulting the case files of Jack McCoy, Lennie Briscoe, Anita Van Buren, and company. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the show’s debut, these are the stories of 20 years in U.S. history according to Law & Order. [Doink doink.]

1990: AIDS and assisted suicide

Compared to what it became in later years, early Law & Order seems a lot more concerned with big social issues than it does with tabloid journalism. Take, for instance, season one’s “The Reaper’s Helper,” which tackles both AIDS and assisted suicide. In the episode, a construction worker is found shot dead in his apartment. Detectives later learn he was gay, and then that he had AIDS. They in turn connect the murders to similar incidents in San Francisco and Los Angeles, ultimately discovering that a man named Jack Curry killed all three, though he claims all three men asked him to help them commit suicide. That’s where things get a little hairy, with Michael Moriarty’s A.D.A. Ben Stone questioning not only the findings in the case, but whether he should prosecute at all. Should someone have the right to take their own life, especially if they know the years or months to come could potentially bring them nothing but pain and suffering? With Jack Kevorkian in the news, the right to die was a hot-button issue at the time—and even now, 25 years later, it’s a question for which we still don’t have an accepted answer. Add AIDS to the equation and you can understand why “The Reaper’s Helper” spoke so profoundly to viewers fresh out of the ’80s. [Marah Eakin]

1991: Religious faith vs. parental choice

In “God Bless The Child,” an episode that aired in October of 1991, Law & Order tackled both religious faith and parental choice. After a couple’s daughter dies of strep throat, the “order” portion of the gang is called in to determine whether her death was preventable. Stone, in turn, must attempt to determine whether the girl’s parents wanted to seek help, only to be pressured into holding back due to their religious faith. Ripped from 1989 headlines about the Alex Dale Morris case, where a 4-year-old died from something that could have been cured by simple antibiotics, “God Bless The Child” represents a thought-provoking blend of both idealism and law. Though viewers might not have agreed with the religious family’s decisions, they at least had to question whether they should have had those rights in the first place. [Marah Eakin]

1992: Racism and affirmative action

Race was a big issue for Law & Order from day one. In season two’s “Intolerance,” the issue gets bigger than just black versus white. When a Chinese-American honors student is killed, detectives investigate, eventually coming up against a racist WASP mother whose son was competing with the dead kid for a scholarship. Affirmative action was introduced in the United States in the 1960s, and has been the subject of countless lawsuits and studies since. The issue was reignited in the early ’90s, when a number of universities were just starting to shift away from the policy. (“Intolerance” is also a twist on the 1991 Wanda Holloway case, where a Texas mother was convicted of hiring a hitman to take out her daughter’s competition at cheerleading tryouts.) “Intolerance” takes an issue—racism—that’s as old as time, brings it up to date, and gets both parents and schools involved. [Marah Eakin]

1993: Trashy talk shows, child molestation, and vigilante justice

Crappy talk shows were in the news around the time “Sweeps” was written for season four, after Geraldo Rivera scuffled with KKK members at a rally in Wisconsin. It was Rivera’s second onscreen fight, with the first—a tussle against skinheads in 1988—landing him a semi-famous broken nose. Rivera wasn’t alone in his shit-starting, though: Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, and Ricki Lake were all being criticized at the time for prioritizing ratings and sensationalism over general sensitivity, leading to the kind of sentiment that makes “Sweeps” work so well. In the episode, the detectives investigate the murder of a convicted child molester fresh off his appearance on a trashy talk show. The deceased, Dr. Joseph Vinton, certainly isn’t a sympathetic character, but the shooter—Sid Fisher, the father of the kid Vinton fondled three years earlier—is. While the case seems cut-and-dried to start, it’s eventually discovered that controversial talk show host Rick Mason may have set up the shooting or at least encouraged Fisher to be there, all in an attempt to boost his sweeps ratings. It’s rich that Law & Order, a show that made its bones being at least a little bit sensational, is calling out another TV show for being a whole lot sensational. But Dick Wolf and company are nothing if not high on their own supply. [Marah Eakin]

1994: Tonya Harding and America’s obsession with victory

When figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted by a member of rival Tonya Harding’s trashy posse in the run-up to the 1994 Winter Olympics, the story became a national obsession. And like all stories that are both sensational and entertaining, it thus became the inspiration for a Law & Order episode. “Doubles” takes the incident off the ice and moves it to a tennis court, with a competitive tennis player calling on the cops after her wrist is broken in the run-up to the big tournament. The episode also references Monica Seles, who was stabbed on the court in 1993, but “Doubles” is less about the actual incident (or about who did what to whom) and more about why the action occurred. Questioning the line between friendly competition and pathological obsession with achieving victory at all costs, “Doubles” manages to make elite and godlike athletes seem appallingly human. [Marah Eakin]

1995: Abortion rights and the separation of church and state

With all manner of abortion clinics being bombed and doctors being killed, a woman’s right to choose was under a lot of fire in the mid-’90s. That’s the genesis for “Progeny,” an episode about the murder of an abortion doctor by a radical pro-life minister. While audiences are meant to understand that taking a life is wrong, both viewers and the characters on screen in “Progeny” are forced to wrestle with their concept of when life begins and what right a religious person has to act when they believe something wrong is being done. Luckily, A.D.A. Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) has the ability to weed out the judicial wheat from the tabloid chaff, saying in his closing statement that while “well-meaning people can disagree, especially about the most socially divisive issue to face our country this century,” it’s still not okay to for anyone to appoint themselves judge, jury, and executioner. After all, if that person gets away with it, “you better just pray that one day, someone like him doesn’t find some fault with you.” [Marah Eakin]

1996: Classism and killer nannies

Who do you trust to take care of your kids? That’s the issue at question in “Homesick,” in which an infant dies and the baby’s au pair becomes the chief suspect. Mixing issues of rich-versus-poor, privilege-versus-staff, and employees-versus-family, “Homesick”—like so many other Law & Order episodes—ultimately ends with a surprising twist: It was the baby’s teenage brother that committed the murder, not the loving au pair. “Homesick” resonates because it makes viewers question not only their own decisions and urges, but also the ones that others might be secretly harboring. That’s some scary shit. [Marah Eakin]

1997: Hollywood excess and the deaths of two Simpsons

“We thought that we could get our jabs into biting the hands that feed us,” Law & Order showrunner Rene Balcer said about the season-seven three-parter comprising “D-Girl,” “Turnaround,” and “Showtime.” Balcer and other L&O staffers had done their time in the Hollywood trenches, and the three-parter tackles toxic working environments in the film industry, pitching the action between two poles of then-timely L.A. scandal: the drug-related death of Don Simpson and the murders of Ronald Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson. Court TV had the real-life drama of the O.J. Simpson murder case pretty well sewn up; the Brown and Goldman families had already taken the Heisman winner to civil court when “the trial of the century” seeped into Law & Order’s California trilogy, in which McCoy and Jamie Ross (Carey Lowell) face off against a fictionalized Dream Team and the media circus building up around filmmaker-turned-accused-killer Eddie Newman (Scott Cohen). But the three-parter’s depiction of sexual harassment and substance abuse in the Dream Factory stemmed from a different, unrelated Simpson: “The inspiration was the death of the producer Don Simpson, his personality, plus others I’d rather not name,” Balcer says in Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion. “And we also play upon the huge egos that flourish in this business”—which explains what’s going on with Cohen’s over-the-top performance. [Erik Adams]

1998: Paparazzi and the death of Princess Diana

Alec Baldwin played a reporter who’s at odds with Olivia Benson in a 2014 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, but that wasn’t his introduction to the L&O universe. Sixteen years earlier, he pitched in on the story for season eight’s “Tabloid,” which draws from Baldwin’s own contentious relationship with the gossip press and the paparazzi’s suspected involvement in the car crash that killed producer Dodi Fayed, driver Henri Paul, and Diana, Princess Of Wales. A judicial investigation later determined that Paul was drunk at the time of the wreck, but “Tabloid” followed what was then the accepted narrative: Diana and Fayed were fleeing intrusive representatives of the fourth estate, just as law professor Maggie Abbott is when she’s struck by an automobile. When the reporter who pursued Abbott winds up dead, the episode takes a turn for the literal, essentially putting the entire tabloid industry on trial in defense of the reporter’s accused killer. Given Baldwin’s involvement, that’s not surprising; what is surprising is the way Jack McCoy winds up invoking the First Amendment in the court room, arguing that muckrakers and investigative journalists alike should enjoy freedom of speech in addition to freedom to not get murdered by a bereaved husband. [Erik Adams]

1999: Death by Viagra

It’s not as if Law & Order had gone completely frivolous at the end of the 20th century: Season nine addressed neo-Nazi youth and religious extremism before turning its attention to the fatal side effects of boner pills. But the fatal side effects of boner pills and a guest shot from Julia Roberts—then romantically linked to Law & Order’s own Benjamin Bratt—perfectly sum up the mindset of a nation that had nothing greater to fear than the Y2K bug. And so the little blue miracle drug celebrates its first full year on the market by turning smoking gun in “Empire,” drawing a line between dead tycoon Gilbert Sanderson (Daniel Murray) and fundraiser Katrina Ludlow (Roberts). For a more localized, penetrating dose of relevancy, the episode also took inspiration from a real-estate dispute between Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, and George Steinbrenner, personalities whose self-regard required no pharmaceutical inflation. [Erik Adams]

2000: Gun politics

The Columbine High School massacre took place near the end of Law & Order’s ninth season, and the aftershocks reverberate throughout season 10. The suspect at the center of “Killerz” is even younger than Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were when they committed what was then the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history; bullying, one of Harris and Klebold’s supposed motivations, was addressed in “Loco Parentis.” Then there’s the question of how the murderers acquired some of their weapons, which factors into the season premiere, “Gunshow.” When a shooting spree in Central Park leaves 15 dead, Lennie Briscoe (Jerry Orbach) and new partner Ed Green (Jesse L. Martin) recover the weapon. Unable to prosecute the gun’s owner, McCoy goes after its manufacturer, whose product has become particularly popular thanks to a modification sold at gun shows—gun shows like the one where Robyn Anderson purchased two shotguns and a 9mm semiautomatic carbine for Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. The “Gunshow” killer’s misogynistic M.O. is more in line with that of Canadian mass murderer Marc Lépine, but the shots fired by the episode trace back to Littleton, Colorado. [Erik Adams]

2001: Reality TV

The type of programming depicted in “Sweeps” posed no direct threat to Law & Order—at least not until the show became a daytime syndication staple. But in the winter of 2001, the franchise was feeling the squeeze of a new broadcast phenomenon: Survivor: The Australian Outback was underway on CBS, on its way to becoming the year’s most popular show. (As Lieutenant Van Buren, S. Epatha Merkerson sums up an equally popular opinion of reality TV in “Swept Away: A Very Special Episode”: “Never seen it. Already hate it.”) As Survivor and Big Brother upped the stakes for the participants in Real World-style social experiments, “Swept Away: A Very Special Episode” wondered: Were fame, money, and big ratings worth the loss of a human life? Getting the jump on UnREAL by 14 years, the investigation into a reality star’s murder homes in on manipulative producers, whom, according to the district attorney’s office, incited one of their cast members to kill another. Any fears that reality shows would eventually crowd scripted fare out of the marketplace proved unfounded, but “Swept Away” does conjure some images of TV yet to come: Among its supporting cast are It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s Charlie Day and Happy Endings’ Zachary Knighton. [Erik Adams]

2002: 9/11 and Islamophobia

As a New York-set show that filmed in the Big Apple and drew from the city’s deep reserves of available actors, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 hit Law & Order where it lived. While stopping short of putting its detectives on the trail of Osama Bin Laden, the show made the attacks a major factor in its final act, finding recurring themes in the conversations, issues, politics, and wars of the post-9/11 world. In the season 12 finale, “Patriot,” Briscoe points out the vacant spot of skyline where the World Trade Center once stood; season 13 begins with “American Jihad,” a story with distinct echoes of the real-life John Walker Lindh case. Like Lindh, Greg Landen (Wil Horneff) converted to Islam as a teenager; unlike Lindh, he chooses to serve as his own legal counsel when he’s tried for the murder of a college professor. The episode is careful to avoid the pitfalls that occasionally snared 24 and other War On Terror fiction, portraying Greg as an individual who bends Islam to suit his hateful agenda, re-focusing the anger and pain that led to so much anti-Muslim sentiment in the months following 9/11. In her cross-examination of Greg, A.D.A. Serena Southerlyn (Elizabeth Röhm) isn’t attacking a faith practiced by millions of people worldwide. She’s attacking the few who would abuse that faith to intimidate and oppress. [Erik Adams]

2003: The Beltway sniper shootings

After a year dominated by post-9/11 anxiety, Law & Order put its focus back on such homegrown horror as 2002’s Beltway sniper attacks, a potent reminder that some of the deadliest and most remorseless terrorists come from within our borders. “Sheltered” is a devastating take on the three-week random killing spree that left 10 dead, three wounded, and an entire community filling its gas tanks behind opaque tarps to avoid becoming the next victim. The only thing more shocking than the shootings was the twisted, quasi-familial bond between the two perpetrators, which made the perfect sensationalist hook for a Law & Order episode. Modern Family’s Ty Burrell plays Herman Capshaw, an even more extreme version of John Allen Muhammad, who kidnaps a young boy named Justin (Sebastian Stan) and spends a decade breaking him down with constant abuse and turning him against his biological family. A rash of daylight shootings terrorizes Manhattan, and Justin is revealed as the sniper, but McCoy and Southerlyn soon learn Justin is himself a victim, driven to kill by his advanced case of Stockholm syndrome. “Sheltered” renews the show’s ongoing debate over how to hold children to account when they commit crimes we think only adults are capable of, and as always, concludes there are no easy answers and no ideal solutions. [Joshua Alston]

2004: The never-ending war

In May of 2003, then-president George W. Bush declared the end of major combat in Iraq, but the war would drag on far longer than that as the moral costs racked up as quickly as the financial costs. “Veteran’s Day,” which first aired in February 2004, finds the prosecutors pursuing justice for an anti-war protester murdered by a Gulf War vet in a state of emotional distress following his son’s death on the battlefield in Afghanistan. The case ends in a mistrial, which symbolizes the country’s conflicted feelings about the war effort and whether the benefit justifies the cost. Two months later, the Abu Ghraib prisoner torture scandal broke; Law & Order quickly turned it into “Paradigm,” its season 15 premiere. Detectives Ed Green and new addition Joe Fontana (Dennis Farina) investigate the murder of an Iraq war veteran who possesses his own self-incriminating stash of prisoner abuse photos. The killer, Nadira (Sarita Choudhury), is the sister of one of the tortured prisoners, but she’s found guilty after failing to convince the jury that, as a soldier of Islam, she must be tried according to the protocols set forth by the Geneva Conventions. Law & Order was enduring its own trial that year as audiences struggled to warm to Farina, who had the unenviable position of stepping in for the beloved Jerry Orbach. [Joshua Alston]

2005: The 24-hour news cycle

By 2005, the national conversation around “the CNN effect” was peaking, and Law & Order had begun exploring the fraught intersections between crime and punishment and the insatiable and increasingly partisan news media. The most literal take was “Obsession,” a riff on the Bill O’Reilly sexual harassment scandal. George Bamford plays Larry Shea, an ultra-conservative primetime news host who is murdered, leaving a woman with whom he settled a sexual harassment suit (Caris Vujcec) as the most likely culprit. But whereas “Obsession” was about how those who report the news become the news, “Age Of Innocence” is about how incessant media coverage shapes public opinion of alleged criminals and impacts how detectives and prosecutors do their jobs. A take on the Terri Schiavo end-of-life debate, which dominated the 24-hour news cycle, “Innocence” finds the detectives investigating a car bombing that kills a man who wants his brain-dead wife taken off life support. The episode doesn’t offer its own opinion on the morals of end-of-life choices, but it reflects how passionate the public became about the issue and how the non-stop media debate can affect cases. ADA McCoy struggles to get the culprit, a reverend gone rogue (John Aylward) convicted because it’s impossible to draw an impartial jury from a community too knowledgeable of the issues at play to be truly objective. [Joshua Alston]

2006: The internet of everything (including murder)

Law & Order never completely shed the technophobia that permeates every episode in which the internet plays an important role in the plot. But the show very slowly and gradually became more sophisticated in portraying how the internet inspires and facilitates crimes. “Avatar,” a riff on social media and responsibility, came in the early stages of this evolution. The detectives investigate a woman’s murder after a photo of the victim’s dead body is posted to, a takeoff of Friendster and MySpace in an age before the meteoric rise of Facebook. In a classic Law & Order twist, the victim’s daughter Molly (Brianna Steinhilber) is held responsible for her mother’s death after the detectives discover she frequently posted to her B-Friends page about how she wishes someone would kill her mom. But the show grew out of its tendency to hold the technology equally responsible for a crime as the perpetrator. B-Friends is implicated for failing to intervene when users notified them about Molly’s homicidally inclined status updates, and its founder (Michael Bakkensen) is forced to reveal an email that suggests the company’s culpability. The episode ends with Douglas (Robert Stanton), the victim’s husband and the killer’s father, vowing to sue B-Friends civilly. “That’s one way to take responsibility for your child,” says McCoy. [Joshua Alston]

2007: Political pundits and wedge issues

The politicization of American society continued to inform Law & Order, as the show moved from “ripped from the headlines” episodes based on specific real-life crimes to episodes inspired by hot-button political issues and the zealots populating both sides of them. In “Talking Points,” Law & Order takes on the issue of stem-cell research as Detectives Green and Nina Cassady (Milena Govich) investigate the death of a college student who is shot during a political rally headlined by a far right-wing political pundit. Charlotte Ross nails her performance as Judith Barlow, a conservative bomb-thrower inspired by Ann Coulter, who gets name-checked when Green says Barlow makes Coulter “look like Mary Poppins.” Barlow was the intended target of the bullet that wound up in the victim, and a figure so controversial is the target of a murder attempt, there’s no shortage of suspects. The trail of red herrings leads to Malcolm Yates (Louis Cancelmi), a student with Parkinson’s disease who hated Barlow for her vocal criticism of potentially life-saving stem-cell research. “Talking Points” mashed up several controversial issues into one episodic whodunnit, a model that would become Law & Order’s modus operandi. [Joshua Alston]

2008: Blood sports

The investigation into Michael Vick’s dog fighting ring began in April 2007, and nearly a year later, Law & Order presented “Submission,” its take on the case. Dog fighting normally falls outside the jurisdiction of Detectives Ed Green and Cyrus Lupo (Jeremy Sisto), but they’re called in when one of the dead dogs is found with a woman’s finger in its stomach. The episode moves away from the dog fighting in favor of following the murder investigation, but not before the detectives take a moment to mock protesting animal-rights activists who are more outraged by canine deaths than human ones. Law & Order’s 19th season began with “Rumble,” an episode inspired by Kimbo Slice, who rose to fame as a result of infamously brutal street fights broadcast online. The detectives investigate the beating death of a stockbroker in an illegal street fighting group, an element seemingly more influenced by Chuck Palahniuk than by Slice, but still an another ample opportunity to delve into the American obsession with winning and the public’s tolerance for brutality. In “Rumble,” the prosecutors talk through a provocative idea that links the year’s sports-adjacent episode, the notion that the constantly looped footage of the 9/11 attacks inflicted a trauma that left Americans desensitized to brutality that takes place on a screen. [Joshua Alston]

2009: Immigrants and refugees

Though New York City is often heralded as an example of intercultural harmony, Law & Order takes a frequently dystopian view on a city full of tragic crimes born of inconsequential differences. In “Chattel,” a husband-wife team of divorce attorneys (Paul DeBoy and Maureen Silliman) are murdered, a plot line inspired by a real-life homicide in July 2008. Detectives Cyrus Lupo and Kevin Bernard (Anthony Anderson) follow the clues to a child-slavery ring in which Haitian children are being smuggled into the country to act as domestic servants for wealthy families. The ongoing debate over undocumented immigrants fueled many Law & Order episodes, and they almost always felt fresh because once post-9/11 jingoism took hold, it never fully subsided. In the oddly titled “Promote This!” Lupo and Bernard are on the hunt for the perpetrator of the hit-and-run homicide of a Hispanic undocumented immigrant, which they later discover is a hate crime, part of a larger campaign to end illegal immigration. ADA McCoy has an unfortunate chapter in his personal life exposed when he’s forced to admit he and his wife once employed a nanny for over a year before finding out she wasn’t a naturalized citizen. [Joshua Alston]

2010: 15 minutes of shame

Law & Order got lots of mileage out of reality television, but in 2010, during the last half of its final season, the show turned its focus from the shows themselves to the people who use them as a platform to fame, no matter the cost. In “Brazil,” a global-warming denier (Elliot Vilar) is poisoned during a symposium on the issue, and the trail of clues leads to his wife Dana (Tammy Blanchard), who has been locked in a bitter custody battle with her ex-husband (Tony Hale) over their daughter, Nicole (Kristen Bough). Nicole is later feared missing and thought to have taken the water in an inflatable raft, a nod to the Falcon Heene “balloon boy” hoax involving parents who exploited their child as a means of landing a reality show. That was also the goal of Tareq and Michaele Salahi, the couple that crashed a White House state dinner in November 2009 with cameras for Bravo’s The Real Housewives Of D.C. in tow. Law & Order used the incident as the basis for “Crashers,” in which a party girl cons her way into a political event and is later found dead. The footage of the Salahis’ security breach was cut out of Housewives Of D.C., which was canceled after a single season, so Law & Order’s version of the incident is the closest the Salahis came to televising their stunt. [Joshua Alston]

Article issu de A.V. Club et
initialement publié le 09/09/15.

Tous les articles présentés dans cette rubrique sont la propriété de leurs auteurs respectifs.

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