Originally posted at TV With MeeVee as a challenge to myself: Argue that Law & Order stands up pretty well to comparison with David Simon’s inarguably brilliant The Wire. In retrospect, I think this post could use some expansion, but for twenty minutes off the cuff it’s not bad.
First off, let’s talk about the disappointment in the air over this season of The Wire In particular, the critics over at Slate seem pretty unhappy. They think McNulty is way out of character, the newsroom story is too spiteful, and the only good points are Bunk Moreland and what little we see of the kids from last season. TV Squad thinks this episode (we’re talking number six, "The Dickensian Aspect," by the way) stumbled a little bit, but the show is still absolutely stellar. And Tim Goodman is still in love. Still, it really seems like this season just isn’t living up to the impossibly high standards set for it by previous seasons and their attending hype.
In other words, The Wire isn’t perfect. And even if it were the greatest TV show ever, its existence doesn’t magically invalidate everything that came before it.
See, I keep coming back to the story David Simon likes to tell about The Wire and its origins, how it’s meant to be a big kick in the teeth for people who produce shows like Law & Order, which pull punches and are too pat and too easy.
I’m not sure it’s all that different, though.
Yes, The Wire is a greater work of art and it definitely makes other cop shows pale in comparison. But at the same time, the standard procedurals—I’m most familiar with the Law & Orderfranchise but it holds true for things like CSI as well—are underrated by Wire fans.
Yes, obviously, The Wire is more novelistic: It’s got story arcs that go on for years, while the L&O franchises never do more than a two-episode special. The Wire blurs the line between cops and crooks, between protagonist and antagonist, between good and evil, in a realistic way. And no, the mainstream procedurals aren’t in any way realistic. They don’t even have swearing, or disillusioned cops, or crippling budget cuts.
Still, I keep seeing Law & Order episodes where the bad guys mean well, where the real evil goes unpunished, where nobody gets caught, or where the framework of the police procedural is used to explore a particular political issue. These shows are not a simple hour of cops and robbers.
For example, last November, we had an episode of Criminal Intent in which Detective Goren was ordered not to investigate abuses at an upstate mental hospital where his nephew was held, but disobeyed orders, and got himself committed and tortured by sadistic guards. When the whole thing unwound, he and his superiors got reprimands, the nephew disappeared, and the systematic inmate torture was more or less ignored.
Or take the episode of SVU in which a mercenary soldier kills a refugee and a translator to prevent them from spilling secrets about US-sponsored torture in Iraq, then gets his company to transfer him to Bahrain before the law catches up. Nobody wins in that episode, either. And what about the one where the frozen embryos were kidnapped? The investigation may have led to a simple revenge killing, but on the way it spent a terrific amount of time visiting the land of bioethics and reproductive counseling.
How is an hourlong special on interrogation or bioethics "pulling punches," especially compared to Omar Little jumping off a five-story building and escaping with only a broken leg?