Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Law & Order: Hilariously Earnest Unit

When A&E first began airing syndicated Law & Order reruns years ago, I used to watch them every night at ten p.m., with the sound turned down, while talking on the phone to a girl I knew. There would be long pauses in our conversations during which I'd be able to catch the verbal plot twists; the rest I could infer. To this day, those first four seasons are inextricably tied to my memory of the girl who always slouched a little, who had sleepy eyes and lashes like vaudeville hooks.

Other people think back on high school crushes and recall the songs popular then, the places they hung out. I think of Mike Logan, Ben Stone and Lenny Briscoe.

For partly that sense of emotional familiarity, I spent the ensuing years almost gravitating toward Law & Order when it was on, but I'd be lying if I didn't say the show's format probably played a bigger role. Like pizza, sex and Carl Hiaasen novels, even bad Law & Order is still pretty good. Its instantly disposable format — almost no story arcs, personal drama or characters extraneous to the procedural structure — makes watching it instantly familiar, instantly rewarding and almost instantly standardized in quality. You can give each episode total attention or almost none at all and find both satisfying. If you're home sick and too nauseated to sleep or read and notice TNT is running an afternoon marathon of Law & Order (and when aren't they?), your afternoon is made.

The rigid adherence to the procedural aspect lent itself easily to all manner of spinoffs, and I greeted the arrival of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit as an opportunity to watch something completely familiar, yet different — a pleasant More of the Same without the aggravation of having to ask myself, before each episode, whether I'd seen it twice, three times or too many to count. SVU's start was both fresh and auspicious. The first few seasons brought a semi-familiar format and also a welcome departure into different areas of crime and the law. The last few seasons, however, have been almost uniformly ridiculous.

Like new episodes of The Simpsons, which take until the second act to even have a semblance of plot, almost every SVU episode twists, turns and doubles back on itself to reach a conventional finale. ("There's a kid being raped? Oh, shit, but he lives in a hasidic community subject to arcane Jewish law! How can we get him out of this? Well, we can use the Patriot Act because it turns out they're ironically not trading diamonds on the market but actually smuggling guns for neo-Nazis! Cool, we rescued the kid, but it turned out his dad wasn't raping him; it was Santa.") All quirky characterization has been stamped out. The primacy of both The Law and Keeping Order have been eroded by family-drama subplots, Has This Good Cop Gone Bad? cliché and whole in-episode acts with little more substance than can be found in the breathy dramatic voicovers in the show's promos: "And finally, someone gets hurt... one of their own...."

It's actually possible to chart the intelligence/inanity levels of any episode of SVU just by looking at something you might call the Munch-Makeup Scale. Despite starring on — and, depending on the episode, sometimes carrying — the unequivocally excellent Homicide: Life on the Street for seven seasons, Richard Belzer's John Munch character has pretty much become totally marginal in SVU episodes. His exile to the periphery of storylines typifies the narrowing of the show's focus and the misuse of all but two characters. The less you see of him, chances are the worse the episode and the later (read: worse) the season.

In early seasons, almost every character got a few episodes dedicated to them, and the non-"character" episodes were almost equally shared by the ensemble. In the last three years, I can remember maybe one or two Munch episodes at most, while the ensemble aspect to the show has all but disappeared. The smart former sixties radical who distrusted his government and who could be incredibly entertaining just kvetching in the Homicide station house now spends his full two minutes per episode as Sgt. Exposition, walking into scenes bearing pieces of paper and the words, "I just ran those prints you found. Turns out they match a Nazi Santa from Binghamton."

As said, the other easy clue is the makeup. In earlier seasons, Detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) wore off-the-rack women's suits, had her hair down, wore lipstick and brushed a bit of color on her cheeks. While she was obviously much better-looking than the stereotype of the average woman cop, she at least still seemed practically sexy: the kind of sexy that stays within the budget and can get out the door in under an hour each morning. She was always going to have to start at television's idea of minimum-acceptable attractiveness, but there was an underlying practicality to what props and makeup did to her.

As seasons wore on, the cosmetics increased, as the clothes switched to impractically tight designer jeans and v-neck shirts and the hair went up into a short styling waxed display of effort. Now she wears a rotisserie of stylish clothes, feathered hair, silly highlights and enough liquid eyeliner, foundation and powder to play a transvestite in a John Waters film. Surely part of this is the producers remaining predictably terrified of a woman aging on film, but the compensatory measures jettisoned any realism to the character. While no one expected her to look ugly or even "TV Ugly," the character who pushes herself 20 hours at a time on the job — who can't let go sometimes — wanders into every scene looking like she spends her four sleeping hours being dressed and lacquered by a team of makeup contractors.

In many ways, the Benson character — and that of her parter, Detective Elliot Stabler (the amazing-in-almost-anything-else Christopher Meloni) — is a hallmark of how terrible a given season is and how terrible the show has become overall. As ensemble stories diminished, needlessly melodramatic private-life-oriented shows increased, making SVU the "Benson and Stabler Personal Demons Hour."

Take a late-season episode from last year for example. Seemingly convinced that a plot about investigating a series of male-guard-on-female-inmate prison rapes couldn't keep the audience jacked in, the writers had Benson go undercover at the prison and spend five minutes running through underground service corridors and piping and steam blasts before being pinned and nearly raped by a monstrous guard. The whole thing was such shallow, cartoonish exploitive garbage — like watching Pepe le Pew star as the lead rapist from I Spit on Your Grave.

The writers departed from the little-backstory Law & Order procedural format in a confused and inconsistent mish-mash of overwrought camp and cliché. Benson spent the first few episodes of this season obviously haunted and broken down by her near-rape experience. By episode four, it was almost entirely forgotten, and she's since spent at least two episodes breezily posing as drunken rapebait and tarted up in ratings-grabbing prostitute garb. Tune in any episode of the last four years, and you stand at least a 50% chance of seeing a spontaneous rule-breaking undercover mission, police brutality, civil rights infringement, a giant ethics violation, or someone saying — with almost hilarious sincerity — some riff on the line, "You're too close to this case!" Tune in a week later, and not a single one of those things will have had any consequences.

Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than a breakdown of Benson & Stabler highlights:

Is the product of a rape.
Alcoholic mother dies in a booze-fueled accident before they can reconcile.
Kills two suspects.
Slept with coworker.
Has her throat cut by a rapist.
Left partner Elliot Stabler.
Returned to partner with Elliot Stabler.
For no logical reason whatsoever is asked to leave New York and go halfway across the country in an FBI sting, posing as an eco-terrorist.
Finds out she has a brother.
Finds out her brother is a rapist.
Helps her brother evade the FBI.
Reconsiders and helps track down her brother.
Finds out her brother isn't a rapist and that an FBI agent is crooked.
Nearly sleeps with an astronaut.
Nearly forced to perform oral sex on a rapist prison guard.
Has been taken off a case something like a dozen times — each time ignored orders and continued working the case.
Has been investigated by internal affairs, like, a billion fucking times.
Sees herself in every woman raped/molested.
Wants to see women victims get vengeance on their attackers.
Has been on the edge of a breakdown for nine years.

Mom is bipolar.
Daughter is bipolar.
Wife is jealous of his relationship with Benson.
Has a sexually tense and emotionally intimate partnership with temporary partner Dani Beck.
Is accused and then cleared of beating a suspect to death.
Daughter gets a DUI.
Covers up DUI.
Daughter gets another DUI.
Burns daughter's driver's licence.
Daughter's DUI and his coverup — and his numerous ethics violations — get brought up every time he testifies in court; somehow doesn't impeach his credibility at all, and he's neither removed from investigations nor witness lists.
Separates from his wife.
Knocks up his wife for something like the fifth time.
Signs divorce papers for his wife.
Gets back together with his wife.
Has family nearly attacked by a stalker who takes his wife hostage with a knife.
Wife nearly dies in a car accident with Olivia.
Wife survives to make it to the hospital.
Wife nearly dies in the hospital in childbirth.
Daughter steals his credit card and maxes it out with her boyfriend while buying tattoos and "slutty" garbage.
A pedophile suspect uploads a photo of one of his other daughters to a pedophile "clothed erotica" website.
Nearly beats pedophile to death.
Is shot by a white supremacist.
Is held hostage at gunpoint.
Is held hostage at gunpoint again, only this time the perp gets shot by the big-haired medical examiner.
Beats another suspect.
Gets injured in an explosion.
Gets stabbed in the chest with a pen.
Has shot and killed two suspects.
Gets thrown through a window by Bill Goldberg.
Gets thrown onto a car window and goes temporarily blind.
Gets shot twice in the chest by a Russian smuggler.
Sees his kids in every child raped/molested.
Has been taken off a case something like a dozen times — each time ignored orders and continued working the case.
Has been investigated by internal affairs, like, a billion fucking times.
Wants to seek vengeance on male attackers.
Has been on the edge of a breakdown for nine years.
Almost none of those things on the list would pose much of a problem if the show presented itself as a shoot-'em-up cops-'n'-rapists show with car chases, beatings and pimps with great hats who would always give you a hot tip. But within the show's context, they all seem so dissonant and overdone because of the show's biggest underlying problem: its contrived and comprehensive earnestness. It's bad enough that the medical examiner — the medical examiner??? — goes around shooting gunmen, but it's worse when ridiculous scenes like that are counterbalanced by her needlessly showing up in the station house every episode, proudly bearing the latest deus-ex-machina lab report and a lecture on some social phenomenon.

Invariably, her dialogue seems not only ripped from the headlines, but ripped from the headlines from some Sunday New York Times feature a show writer obviously thoughtfully munched toast over before saying, "Now, there's an episode idea." Stupid and rollicking and violent and adventuresome is no problem. Stupid accompanied by her saying (to take last night as a paraphrased example), "Animal smuggling is bigger than you think. In fact, animal smuggling is the third most lucrative form of smuggling and often sees endangered species taken from underdeveloped nations" tests the audience's patience. These are circumstances crying out for one-liners, spoofing replies, anything that indicates a vibrant, cooperative humanity with variant opinions and degrees of investment in them. But plurality of ideas and attitudes can't be found. Nothing of the monolithic seriousness can be distilled with anything like levity. Instead, the jokes further exposition. Even the comedy is grimly purposeful.

It's the earnestness that rankles when, for the sake of convenience, the writers remember that Stabler is Catholic and suddenly have him oppose some liberal measure based on the conviction of his faith — then, in the next episode, have him scream at some religious whacko for not giving gay people equal rights. It's the earnestness that makes their stumbling across militia groups, separatist groups and cults insufferable, because they don't want to keep the cases out of selfishness or job ambition but because they've got the most heart and won't forget that one kid who's getting abused within a group of 78 people armed with an arsenal of nuclear dishwasher detergent bottles. It's not, "Give us the case because we fucking found it, and your task force didn't, asshole!"; it's, "Give us the case because Sex Crimes is the division that cares the most."

The show started out with some grit and ugliness to it, but its unrealistically über-liberal and sensitive detectives now regularly verge on acting out Disney's Wonderful World of Sexual Abuses every week. In the first few seasons, sometimes victims were awful people, and the job was just the shit that had to get done when you were at work. Nine seasons later, the two lead characters have spent a combined 18 years "on the edge," and every case was one they got too close to, in between their personal lives being determined by someone opening up a book of 101 Easy Plot Devices and picking whichever one his finger landed on.

And just as you start to resign yourself to this stuff — to accept that, no, this show is now pretty much terminally silly; just as you accept that, yeah, it's Law & Order, so I'm just going to grab the remote, fire-n-forget, put it on NBC and just see what the fuck happens for the next hour while I do this crossword or write an email to family or dust some shelves; just as you're resigned to a lowered level of quality, a higher level of histrionics and your own baseline of what's acceptable entertainment, something unbearably ludicrous happens.

Maybe it's Miranda from Sex and the City threatening Stabler's wife with the knife. Maybe it's the lady who does autopsies establishing cause of death by squeezing off a couple of hot slugs to the chest of some lousy perp. Or maybe (and I swear I'm not making this up) it's Benson spending the entire episode on the phone with a little abused girl with a twee voice and then racing against time to dig her up from the grave in which she's been buried alive and then — despite the girl having run out of oxygen for ten minutes — reviving her, without negative effects, with mouth-to-mouth. Yes, Detective Benson's breath resurrects telegenic children whose brains have gone without oxygenated blood for at least five minutes.

At that point, it's too much.

The show means well and it entertains fairly regularly, but once you hit a moment like that, no episode can pass a laugh test anymore. What was once passively ridiculous — too sincere, too convenient, too clichéd — becomes actively so. Any show that's been on the air for nine years will have long since stretched truth, plausibility and the main characters' backstories to the breaking point. But it takes rare effort to go from good, to amusingly mediocre to sublimely ridiculous. The show takes itself very seriously and once presented its subject matter in a way that was sobering. Now not an episode passes without a moment, a line, or a glance that's hysterically, unintentionally funny.