Law & Order: Special Victims Unit recently celebrated its 400th episode – a milestone for any television series, but an especially lofty achievement for a spin-off. At one point there were five Law & Order series running on U.S. television (six, if you count the canonical British spin-off Law & Order UK), but by now the original series and all of SVU’s siblings have departed – and SVU itself has become a vastly different animal. But with plans for the series to continue for as long as sole its remaining original cast member Mariska Hargitay opts to remain in the lead role as Olivia Benson, it soldiers on.
But should it do so still under the Law & Order branding? The answer to that question feels increasingly uncertain – not only with the “main” series having passed into the rerun afterlife, but with the phrase “law and order” itself taking on a partisan political meaning in U.S. pop-culture discourse.
Indeed, most TV viewers today are likely to associate the words “law and order” in any context with the various series, especially their iconic “dum-DUM!” scene-change sound effect. But it’s easy to forget that the phrase itself only entered American colloquial speech as a common term referencing the policing of crime fairly recently in the mid-to-late 20th century – and when it did, it carried a very specific and controversial political bent, with original usage typically attributed to conservative firebrand Barry Goldwater during his failed 1964 campaign for President.
While Goldwater famously failed to unseat incumbent Democrat President Lyndon Johnson in ’64, the rhetoric and policy-outline of his campaign was largely credited with shaping the future direction of his party and (with significant refine for “media-friendliness”) served as the basis for platform playbooks that would redefine the Republican party and propel the successful campaign of Richard Nixon in 1968 and the California governorship (and later 1980s presidency) of Ronald Reagan. While this movement had many different facets and catchphrases, “law and order” was among the most consistent in terms of repeated meaning: The promise of a crackdown not simply on “crime,” but very specifically on immediate socially-disruptive crime – particularly property destruction, demonstration and so-called “street crime” associated with large cities. As Goldwater put it in his ’64 nomination acceptance speech, the aim was:
“Freedom made orderly for this nation by our constitutional government; freedom under a government limited by laws of nature and of nature’s God; freedom – balanced so that liberty lacking order will not become the slavery of the prison cell; balanced so that liberty lacking order will not become the license of the mob and of the jungle.”
But while the “law and order” ideal became increasingly popular in the American mainstream (particularly as the political priorities of Baby Boomers, who were in their teens in Goldwater’s era, shifted decisively as they entered their 30s in the Reagan Years), opponents long charged that the phrase and its attendant ideology were couched in the politics of racial resentment. “Law and order,” it was argued, was an attempt to reframe post-Reconstruction paranoia about the potential of violence being unleashed by politically-empowered black citizens.
In effect, promises of “law and order” were viewed as promises to use the power of police and other law enforcement agencies to put “uppity” minorities, anti-war “hippie” protestors and other demonized groups back in their place. The movement focused on sensationalized media coverage of inner-city riots supposedly associated with the Civil Rights movement, and made use of what some saw as “dogwhistle” code-words (like Goldwater’s specific use of the word “jungle” to specify a state of disorder). The view was so pervasive that Nixon himself saw fit to respond to it in his own acceptance speech in ’68:
“And to those who say that law and order is the code word for racism, there and here is a reply: Our goal is justice for every American. If we are to have respect for law in America, we must have laws that deserve respect.”
Regardless, the phrasing caught on and became so socially-pervasive that by the time TV mega-producer Dick Wolf had decided to use it as the title for his 1990 crime drama (reflecting the series’ then-novel hook of following a criminal case on the police side before switching to the actual prosecution of the case at the midpoint) much of its controversial baggage had been forgotten, particularly after eight years of a largely popular Reagan presidency. It likely also helped that, as the franchise found its “voice” throughout the 90s, Wolf’s Law & Order was itself increasingly seen as a nominally-progressive alternative to the more action-focused “cop worship” crime shows of the 70s and 80s. Special Victims Unit, which follows a police unit dedicated to sex crimes, frequently featured storylines based around intimate-partner violence, racism and anti-LGBT hate crimes.
Things change fast in popular culture, however, and “law and order” as a signatory political phrase has come roaring back to life in recent weeks following newly-installed U.S. President Donald Trump (who himself ran a “tough on crime” campaign citing dubious statistics on the subject of urban crime rates) appointing as Attorney General controversial politician Jefferson Beauregard Sessions. Long associated with the sort of policies alleged to place undue focus on minority communities and the curbing of voting access charged with being behind “law and order” political language by opponents, Sessions’ confirmation has been cheered by supporters and has led the hashtag #LawAndOrder to trend heavily on social media. This hashtag is often used in connection with other more openly-incendiary tags like #IllegalAliens and #ICEraids, in reference to implications that his focus will be a crackdown on immigrant communities.
Whatever one’s own political outlook, the emergent fact of the matter appears to be that “law and order,” as a phrase, has returned to its original partisan, hyper-politicized meaning in U.S. popular discourse. It’s increasingly plausible that the sole surviving Law & Order-branded TV show on the air may have to begin asking itself whether it wants to keep that part of its title.
It would be a fairly extraordinary step, to be certain: Law & Order is a TV institution, even if its relevance has slipped somewhat. The entirety of the franchise (including the original, SVU, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, Law & Order: Los Angeles and even the UK spinoff) are a near-constant rerun presence on cable and networks, often aired in day-long marathon blocks as staples of entire channels’ lineups. The idea of Law & Order as a pop-culture icon isn’t going to go away if SVU were to rebrand itself (either as just “Special Victims Unit” or “SVU: NY,” in keeping with more modern TV naming conventions). Everyone knows that title, the signature music and, of course, the “dum DUM!” sound.
But that could be precisely the problem: Whereas prior Presidential administrations were defined by opposition with their rival party or various grassroots protest movements, thus far the main running subplot for the Trump era has been the pitched rivalry between the President (himself best known as a former “reality television” game show host) and entities within the media – particularly cable news shows, popular comedy shows like Saturday Night Live and social-media “meme” creators. It’s easy to imagine the association between “law and order” as a political catchphrase and Law & Order the TV show as fodder for such humor (“play the ‘dum-DUM!’ sound every time he says it!”)
President Trump likely wouldn’t be happy about that, but by most indications neither would Law & Order: SVU. Despite tackling “ripped from the headlines” stories in most episodes, the franchise has generally strived to avoid appearing partisan to specific politicians or political parties – recently going so far as scrapping an election-season episode about a presidential candidate accused of sexual assault that was widely viewed as being too referential to similar accusations following the actual Trump campaign. Network TV dramas tend to draw an older, more politically-centrist viewership than cable audiences (who trend younger and overwhelmingly more politically-progressive), so becoming closely associated with a divisive political catchphrase isn’t probably high on Wolf Films Inc’s list of most-desired outcomes.
It’s also conceivable that the move could be seen as long-overdue otherwise. The franchise is indeed otherwise dormant, with Wolf’s megafranchise-maintenance attentions having largely redirected to the newer Chicago franchise (Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., Chicago Medical) which takes place in the same “shared universe” as the Law & Order franchise – in fact, some had expressed surprise that the upcoming Chicago Justice wasn’t cross-branded as “Law & Order Chicago.” Letting SVU be seen as its own series going forward could plausibly open up the possibility of extending it as a brand unto itself (SVU: LA? SVU: Miami?), something NBC would probably be more than open to giving the ratings.
Would it actually happen? It’s hard to say, but it would certainly be “easier” now than in previous moments in the franchise’s history. Special Victims Unit is now so ubiquitous, and has evolved so completely from an original Law & Order-style procedural to a character-driven drama mainly centered on Hargitay’s now-Lieutenant Olivia Benson, that it would all-but certainly survive and thrive on its own for the remainder of its run. While Wolf has talked up re-starting the franchise itself, the next proposed step – a “Law & Order: True Crime” spin-off cashing in on the post-American Crime Story craze – wouldn’t necessarily require the branding to succeed, either.
One thing is certain: One way or another, “law and order” is going to be a talking point for a good long while, and it’s something that Law & Order will be grappling with on many different levels – no matter what the show is called.
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