Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Stupid Pop Culture: Law & Order SVU, "Authority"

New semi-regular blog feature. Hopefully I'll get more mileage out of it than the last one I tried.

Although I'm a great lover and defender of pop culture, I'm the first to acknowledge that a great lot of it is, to quote an associate of Leeroy Jenkins's, “just stupid as Hell.” And as I have no chicken, I must, on the occasions when the stupidity becomes too much to bear silently, expound upon it, at great lengths, whether you want me to or not. Such an occasion happened tonight when, quite against my intentions or my will, I found myself in the same room as a broadcast episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Now, I've never expected much of the Law & Order franchise, but even by its predictably lowball standards, this episode is an affront to anyone who ever had an intelligent thought about anything, ever. (It goes without saying that it was also nominated for an Emmy.)

Entitled “Authority,” the episode is “ripped from the headlines,” which is television-speak for “we cribbed the plot from shit we saw on Court TV.” In this case, it's the incident a few years back where a teenage girl working at a fast food restaurant (I want to say Mcdonald's, but I could be wrong) who was strip searched and otherwise physically violated by her bosses, who did so at the behest of a person impersonating a police officer over the phone. After the usual sturm und drang from Stabler (I didn't catch if there was a reference to his little sister who got raped, but I wouldn't bet money against it, either), the trail leads to Special Guest Star Robin Williams.

If that sentence didn't chill your blood, please see a doctor, as you may be legally dead.

Williams plays Merritt Rook, a small businessman who, as best as I can tell, gets his jollies by acting like a rejected Batman villain. Over the course of the episode, we learn that his wife died when he let a doctor overrule his insistence that his wife be given a C-section, which resulted in both her death and the baby's. Ever since, he's devoted his life to challenging authority and breaking people out of the sheeplike mindset imposed upon them by society. (Yes, he actually uses the sheep metaphor, at one point dragging a sheep on camera and naming it “Elliot,” ho ho, because Williams is a wacky actor and can never let us forget it.) Anyway, Rook was the man on the other end of the phone, but gets himself off by representing himself and leading the jury through what writers Neal Baer and Amanda Green (J'accuse!) must have thought was a splendid bit of psychological manipulation, but was in reality confirmation that juries in the TV universe have all the critical thinking skills of a bowl of Cream of Wheat.. Then again, two separate juries couldn't come to a decision about the Menendez Brothers, so we here on Earth-Prime shouldn't really throw stones. But I digress.

Sadly, that doesn't lead up to the half-hour break; the rest of the episode is taken up with Rook becoming a local folk hero, a mob of self-proclaimed non-conformists having a pillow fight in Bryant Park (you don't know how much I regret having to type that phrase), and a final act that veers straight into Michael Bay territory, as Rook abducts Lt. Benson (no, really; the strongest female character in prime-time gets led around by her upper arm like she's the hero's girlfriend in a JRPG) and puts Stabler through a ridiculous imitation of the Milgram experiment. Oh, and then he blows up his hideout and disappears into thin air. I really wasn't kidding about the Batman thing. Looking back, I would say the only thing even approaching a redeeming factor was learning that Diane Neal's gotten rid of the bottled blonde job she had the last time I saw this show (which, not conicidentally, was also the last time I was visiting my parents for the holiday.) Neal has since left the show; I understand she's thinking of going into acting.

Anyhow, this episode sucked. This is no great surprise, but I feel a need to stick up for people who think for a living (or just for fun) and go a bit into why. First of all, it takes a rather complex philosophical issue (how much respect for authority is too much, is there such a thing as group non-conformism, what is free will) and subjects it to a reverse crucible process by which any semblance of thought or nuance is burned away, leaving only hackneyed melodrama and first-year creative writing mistakes. Secondly, and this is tied to the first, it makes the bizarre choice of making Rook the first Deisgnated Criminal in the show's history to be portrayed in a morally ambiguous manner. Aside from the Denny O'Neill lite backstory, the script plays fast and loose with the image of Rook as a heroic deviant, a devil-may-care trickster out to teach the good people of New York a lesson about thinking for yourself and give the power-drunk cops a tweak on the nose. The problem with this is, he's setting up characters the audience has known for ten years as strawmen; even I know they're not as simple as Rook thinks they are. No one is. But the script requires him to be some kind of coyote-ubermensch, and so we get the impassioned courtroom speech AND the bonus tearful breakdown (which Williams inevitably blows, creating an unintentional caricature of every other such moment in the show's history) about how people willingly surrender their free will to authority and blah blah blah. These are serious issues, especially in this time of increased airport security and Wall Street Ponzi schemes, and they deserve more than the shrug on the shoulders and “The More You Know” treatment they get here. Dr. Philip Zimbardo, among others, has written extensively about them.

As a coda, I'd like to talk a bit about Richard Belzer. No stranger to non-conformism himself (he wrote probably the only positive book about conspiracy theories that doesn't sound read like the original manuscript was written in crayon), he plays his character as sympathetic to Rook's message (if not his methods), claiming he's only trying to get people to think. Certainly I have no problem with people thinking more often, but what Rook (and, my author-sense tells me, the writers) is selling isn't really thought. It's, appropriately, the fast-food equivalent of thought: same texture, almost the same flavor, no nutritive value whatsoever. “Fuck the po-lice” is not a deep thought. “Don't do what a cop tells you just because he's a cop” isn't a deep thought, either, although it's a good idea. “Human society demands that we pull together; human nature demands that we pull apart” is getting close to deep thought territory. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” earns points, especially since in this context it's almost the reverse meaning of how it's usually used today. It would take a deeper thinker than I to pull some genuine deep thought out of this scene, and it would have to be done as a contrast to the actual material. It's a scene he'll be paying off karmically for a while, as he makes a previously intelligent and witty cop come off like a sap falling for a train station sob story while an unnoticed street urchin picks his pocket. Which is what makes this episode stupid pop culture: it takes something worth thinking about and makes it not even worth watching.

I have, though, learned one thing: Whenever entering a room last used by my sainted mother, I should turn off the TV immediately rather than let it run for white noise.

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