“Law & Order: SVU” is the most important show on television

No, really.
No, really.
Image: Fred Prouser/Reuters
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As a culture writer I’m supposed to turn you on to some cool Euro detective drama on Netflix. Sure, I’ve watched them, and I have to say, not only are they mostly humdrum or clever without being smart, they’re not as interesting as what’s happening on Law & Order: SVU every week.

Storylines that are ripped from the headlines are, of course, Law & Order‘s bread and butter as a franchise, but no other mainstream show, has weighed in so boldly on the increasingly pitched battle over gender, identity, rape culture and consent. If it was a new Netflix  or Hulu original, this season of SVU—it’s 19th—would launch a thousand think pieces.

This is an official piece of SVU merch.
This is an official piece of SVU merch.
Image: NBC

One story arc that developed over several episodes this season—and if you haven’t been watching, SPOILERS follow—featured Brooke Shields playing a grandmother whose grandson was adopted by Lt. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay, for the uninitiated). Long story, but the mom was a runaway, Benson tried to help her, but she died at the hands of an awful boyfriend. Typical SVU stuff.

At first, Benson is suspicious, but then they all bond until granny kidnaps the boy. Clearly, there are some problems with this story line, but after Benson rescues her son, the writers really hammer home the takeaways: working moms are good moms. Small-minded rural racism and xenophobia is bad. Heteronormative, biological families are not the only families.

Image for article titled “Law & Order: SVU” is the most important show on television

I’m not sure there needed to be a Hargitay-Shields wrestling match to make all those points, but all around, that’s a lot of message for one cop show. (On the pure entertainment level, this story arc is concluded with a Peter Gallagher-Ice T staredown that is one of the best things I have ever seen on television. Or anywhere, really.)

In an episode titled Flight Risk that originally aired on Jan. 17, intrepid district attorney Rafael Barba (Raúl Esparza) convenes a grand jury against an airline that has displayed systematic discrimination against female pilots. He argues that the company should be charged with grand larceny because of the loss of professional advancement and wages.

Yes, SVU is making the case for lady reparations. I’ve read a fair amount of feminist theory, and plenty of arguments for placing a dollar value on labor traditionally done by women. But until this episode, I’ve never heard the case made in this way before before and it has some pretty radical implications.

Image for article titled “Law & Order: SVU” is the most important show on television

While this season is particularly politically charged, it’s not like it’s new territory for the show.

SVU tackles issues like gender non-conformity with a sort of characteristic New York City bluntness. There’s an exchange in episode that aired on Sept. 30, 2015 with the awkward title Transgender Bridge about a bullied transgender teen that goes something like this:

Cop 1: Ah, I don’t know about these transgenders, what’s up with that?

Cop 2: I mean, me either, but why would a dude wear a dress and catch all that flack unless he really wanted to, ya know?

Cop 1: Ya gotta point there.

Olivia Benson, a brief history in text.
Olivia Benson, a brief history in text.

If you watch the SVU reruns—which are on cable pretty much every moment of every day—it won’t take long to find an episode in which transgender women are portrayed as prostitutes and referred to using a whole host of derogatory terms that are really cringe worthy. This newer approach involves a boneheaded but good-hearted cop with a thick Brooklyn accent framing the questions that viewers may be asking themselves. It doesn’t treat fans like idiots for not automatically understanding everything about gender and sexuality. This tactic that strikes me as a pretty effective in our fraught social environment, even if it’s usually dependent on lame dialogue.

In the same way that the show is willing to represent viewers who might not understand transgender issues on screen—albeit in a slightly hamfisted manner—Lt. Benson, the series’ incomparable heroine and fearless leader, is a stand in for pretty much every bad thing that can happen to a woman. While she has not been raped on the show, per se, she has come close several times—once while undercover in a women’s prison, once during an abduction by a violent sociopath. She is the product of rape, and her alcoholic mother never let her forget it. She has been taken hostage more than once. She has had an HIV scare.

Her burning and requited love for her long-time partner, Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni) and string of go-nowhere relationships with journalists who use her as a source, lawyers who turn out to be gay, and other cops who turn out to be toxic, has been undercut by occasional hints that she might actually be a lesbian. You can come for Olivia Benson, but first know that life itself has already tried it, and yet here she still is—a working mom, in a sensible heel suitable both for kicking ass and chasing the occasional perp.

I can’t blame viewers for not being interested in a lot of network television right now, especially procedurals. A show like NCIS is an advertisement for the security state; Criminal Minds is like an FBI recruiting video, and the CBS show S.W.A.T. comes across like a show someone paid the network to develop as damage control for the terrible public image SWAT teams have earned themselves. None of the fun or creativity that was on display in say, the early years of CSI, is anywhere to be found. SVU though, ceased being just a show and started being more of a provocateur at some point after Meloni left. It stopped chasing serial killers and rapists who lurk in the bushes and started grappling with American sexual politics.

There’s so much excellent television that there’s no reason to go looking on prime time for something new to watch. Streaming hits like Stranger Things and Game of Thrones have caught up to network television in terms of the number of viewers. And frankly, as much as I love SVU, I watch it because I’m fascinated by the way it’s participating in the larger conversation about gender and sexuality and because I miss living in New York City. I don’t tune in because it’s great television—although maybe that is one way in which television can be great in this day and age.