Longtime Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Fans probably had an idea of what to expect when they streamed the Season 22 premiere on Thursday night. After all, how could a show known for its ripped-off zeal for the headlines stand up to the dystopian cornucopia of the 2020 news cycle?
During its first five minutes, the first episode, “Guardians and Gladiators,” addressed “Central Park Karen” Amy Cooper, who called the police on a black bird watcher in Manhattan; the protests against police brutality that emerged after the murder of George Floyd; and, of course, the novel coronavirus pandemic. And things got busier from there.
As overcrowded as the premiere can seem at times, it has also set up the season’s wider arc. After our replacement for Cooper, Colleen Reynolds, calls the NYPD on a black man named Jayvon Brown for exercising near her and “scaring his son,” Olivia and Fin appear on the scene. They soon find an injured man in a coma and apprehend Jayvon after noticing he has two outstanding warrants. But that was for protests, and it doesn’t take long for Jayvon to prove his innocence when it comes to beating the man found unconscious, Eric. Oh – and Benson, in the end, arrested and searched him the year before for a crime he didn’t commit.
As the police scramble to find the one who really hurt Eric, the other shoe falls: Jayvon sues the NYPD, Olivia, and Fin.
This summer’s Black Lives Matter protests sparked a discussion about how police procedures like Law and order and their ilk have for decades portrayed the police as heroes. A recent study has shown that these series give the American public a biased view of the criminal justice system. They often portray cops who break the rules as rogue heroes doing what they know to be right – think of the heyday Elliot Stabler – when in reality police misconduct has had lethal consequences for far too many people.
Most of these shows are back or will be back soon this fall – and the question of how they will approach their own complicity in this system has remained unanswered. SVU Clearly commits to meeting the challenge head-on, mostly through its central hero Olivia Benson.
At first, the premiere finds both Benson and her colleagues insisting that she could never, ever be a racist. Testimonial from Fin: “I have worked with Captain Benson for over 20 years. His only bias is for the victim. But in the end, even Benson must be wondering.
The premiere also left space for Fin to explore his own qualms about being a black cop. As Jayvon tells her, “I’m waiting for this nonsense from her. But isn’t it getting old for you, man? And Fin, too, is skeptical of the prejudices of his colleagues. (“You can get the cop out of Staten Island …”) In a conversation with Christian Garland about the upcoming uproar, the deputy chief warns Fin that there is a “purge” in the department – and that no one is safe.
It’s clear that SVUWriters and producers are taking their tenure seriously this season – and for the most part, “Guardians and Gladiators” is a fascinating look at how these shows might slowly reimagine their roles. Yet this process will not be easy or transparent.
SVU may have changed his point of view, but we still live in the same fictional world with the same fictional characters. We’ve known some of these characters for decades, and during that time they’ve been treated more or less like heroes – their actions justified, their mistakes downplayed, their errors in judgment forgiven after a generally mild examination.
Benson, Fin, and their crew are no more or less broadly representative of today’s police force than they were a few years ago – but we too now see them in a different light. As the future continues to take shape, both on screen and in real life, there’s no telling what SVU will eventually look like.
Still, this is a fascinating first step, especially because, at some questionable moments, SVU has done a good job refusing to let his officers get away with it so far. Jayvon is rightly angry with the police, and the show makes it clear that his anger is justified. And when Olivia tells him that he has the right to be mad at her, he retorts, “Don’t tell me that I have the right to be angry.” I already know it.
During his interview with the Office of Internal Affairs, Benson’s interviewer tells him that in his experience, there are two types of police officers: gladiators and guards. Gladiators? Well, we’ve seen them in real life at protests all summer. The Guardians, however, are their own race: “[They] never consider themselves racist but deny their complicity in the NYPD’s systemic racism.
“[They] never consider themselves racist but deny their complicity in the systemic racism of the NYPD.“
It’s a little frustrating to see Benson render this naive–but then again, maybe that is the point. “To what extent has this bias affected my choices?” Olivia wonders out loud. “Does this affect my decisions as a cop?” I am in shock.
That said, a moment from the premiere did stand out: During a grand jury hearing for the real culprit, Fin faces a barrage of questions about Jayvon’s arrest. When he says the arrest falls under standard police procedure, he faces a damning response: “Police procedure? The same procedure you used when you shot that boy’s father, another black man in the projects? And then the real culprit, a white man who looks most “Chad” like Chad ever – broken collar and all! – convinces the jury that he too was abused by the police. “We are all victims here,” he said. “Eric, Jayvon and me.
As the jury nods, completely fooled, it all feels a bit forced – especially when followed by Carisi growling, “They are so mad at the NYPD right now, they want to punish us.” (That would be when the “Get the cop out of Staten Island” comment.)
Above all, “Guardians and Gladiators” seems to be putting together a season that will value serious exploration above all else. Benson and his team may be investigating the same types of crimes they’ve always committed, but some of us are now observing them in ways we didn’t have before. If this premiere is any indication, the coming season will be fascinating – one to watch, if nothing else, to see how this data processing machine handles one of the craziest years in living memory.
At the end of the episode, Olivia Benson tells Jayvon that the DA is laying charges against Colleen Reynolds for the false report. But as Jayvon tells him, he’s already lost his job due to the arrest and the real perpetrator has walked in – so who really cares? Benson begins to tell him that the NYPD has a lot of work to do before they correct themselves: “I have a lot of work to do. “
“Yeah,” he told her. “You do.” It’s time for the Guardian Angel to come back to Earth.
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