Stanley Fish is just as glad Law and Order is toddling off to the syndicated twilight zone where TV dramas go to die. Fish writes an eclectic column for the New York Times touching on religion, law, higher education and the love-hate triangle between them. This week, his focus is on the law as portrayed by the original Law and Order program.
I watch a lot of Law and Order because my wife likes it and I like my wife. Personally, I find the plot twists unconvincing and melodramatic. But the show didn’t survive for twenty years for nothing–it has a way of drawing you in.
My real beef with the show is that the bad guys are almost always rich white guys and their twisted wives and children. If you have spent much time around any criminal courtroom in this great land of ours you know how rarely defendants from this neck of the socio-economic woods ever get charged with serious felonies. Rarely, if ever, do Jack McCoy and company ever handle the kind of nickel-and-dime narcotics cases that have sent hundreds of thousands of poor black males to the big house in the years since the program’s inception.
Stanley Fish has a similar beef, but his focus tells you a lot about white ivory tower traditionalists and sheds very little light on the American courtroom. Dr. Fish objects to the fact that Law and Order gives rich white guys a bad rap. “Here are the police and the people in the justice system trying to keep the streets safe and here is a crowd of wealthy high-and-mighty types who refuse to live by the rules, think the world is theirs for the taking, and proceed to take it with the help of sycophants who do their bidding out of greed and fear.”
Apparently, the law professor doesn’t think this is an accurate portrayal of the American rich.
But how would anyone know? Law enforcement pays remarkably little attention to the folks who live in gated communities and exclusive suburbs bordering the country club. These folks may be every bit as low-down and desperate as Law and Order suggests, but you could spend years inside a criminal courtroom and see little evidence of the social dry rot that was the program’s standard fare. Police cars are seldom seen cruising these neighborhoods. The thought of a SWAT team smashing in the solid oak front door of a wealthy attorney rumored to have a cocaine problem is laughable. The lifestyles of the rich and famous receive remarkably little scrutiny from law enforcement.
Why did America’s most successful courtroom drama misrepresent the realities of the criminal justice system so badly?
Conservatives will place political correctness lies at the heart of the problem. They are half right. Middle America loves to demonize poor black males; but, in a pinch, we will settle for demonizing rich white guys. If the behavior of those beneath and above us on the social ladder is portrayed as equally shabby, the rest of us come off looking good by comparison.
Here’s another piece of the puzzle–the program’s largely white audience has little interest in the struggles of poor people of color. It’s too depressing. Confronted with the kind of in-your-face realism served up by HBO’s The Wire, most viewers recoil in dismay. Is it really that bad where those people live? Surely not!
In the opinion of many critics, The Wire was the best television program ever produced. But it never received a single Emmy nomination. Law and Order, on the other hand, was a perennial nominee and received yet another nomination in its swan song season.
Unfortunately, all most Americans know about real law and order is what they see on television where, like Strawberry Fields, nothing is real.