This post was started before I knew that Dick Wolf had a new series opening. I had been following Chris Meloni which led me to “Law & Order SVU.” This series is intentionally provocative, but I’m not responding to the “ripped from the headlines” sensationalism of the cases. Rather I’m thinking about the development of an American “repertory theatre” body of actors something like the beloved BBC actors we watch in so many roles. Since I’m typing up acting notes from classes I took at the end of the Fifties, I’m thinking about acting per se. And I’m thinking about the show in terms of how I have understood the tussle between law and justice over the years, esp. in the five years I was an animal control officer.
The first phenomenon, a “stable” of extremely skilled actors who work well together, seems to be due at least in part to a shift from Hollywood to New York where many of the actors also appear on the stage. Then, in turn, long-term series like “Hill Street Blues” leading into “NYPD Blue” and “Homicide” leading into “The Wire” -- mostly driven by a person or persons with a vision -- has supported a high level of writing. Now I read in the NYTimes that Wolf wants to create the same kind of talent complex in Chicago, which is where I took my undergrad degree in “Speech Education,” actually a lot of theatre. I KNOW there are a host of small repertory theatres and very fine actors who do academic teaching.
As I watch “L&O svu,” I recognize many regulars from “Oz” and “The Wire” or even as far back as “HIll Street Blues”. (My boss at Animal Control was very much like the sergeant who cautioned the officers to “be careful out there.”) Chris Meloni’s career kicked off with “NYPD Blue.” With a face like an Aku-Aku effigy, he somehow manages to make it ripple as subtly a summer pond in a breeze. Both as the sociopathic convict in “Oz” and as the stalwart moral enforcer in “SVU”, he radiates intelligence . He can say more with a brief sideways glance while leaving a room than anyone who would wheel and give a lecture. When he left the series, fans also left.
The two shows are quite different. “Oz” was character interaction in a pressurized environment where all bets were off. Death removed main characters. But if a person followed industry backstage gossip, it was not long until one realized that under the chaotic plot lines were the lives of the actors. If one of them needed a break, something happened to put the character on hold, the way it happens in soaps. In fact, “Oz” was much like a soap for tough guys with great bodies but it sometimes reached for epic novel. Because the lid was off sex as a subject matter, the same old familiar plot lines of greed, turf and intimacy took on new life -- went deeper, hit harder.
“L&Osvu” is very patterned: first, for television so episodes will fit between advertisements, second, because it is presented in the same mold as the Law & Order franchise: segmented by titles with a cue noise, case presented, evidence accumulates, climax, resolution in court. Clearly the key is again justice versus law. MUCH of the script is explanation of the law, psychiatric information, medical information, so the acting has a lot of technical exposition in it, rather than emotional impetus. But sometimes there is a socko combination, like “John Boy Walton” as a murdering madman, once a responsible and loving husband, brain destroyed by tertiary syphilis. This is not just theatre -- this is wising up the American couch potatoes. As the series grew popular, other major actors appeared in one-shots: Piper Laurie, Margot Kidder, Karen Allen, Penny Fuller (once a classmate). The scripts are not for interchangeable twenty-something kids.
One of the recurring themes and the one I wrestle with in my own life is how much a private citizen should trust and rely on public authorities. When I was an officer on the street addressing animal problems, I often only had a little scrap of information about something much bigger -- like the man who filed complaints against every barking dog in his neighborhood because he was dying of cancer and couldn’t tolerate noise. Or the man whose neighbors accused him of keeping crowing roosters -- who was actually staging cockfights and probably distributing drugs. Or the barking dog a judge complained about in the house that abutted his at the back -- it was chained to the motorcycles of the Gypsy Jokers to keep rivals from meddling with them. (The judge said he had no idea.) So many times I was ineffective. So many cases seemed unresolvable and are still in my head after thirty years.
I go back in memory to problems in my family or ministry involving abused children, old people, or dementia. I never felt I knew who could help, how to approach them, or how they might react. I don’t think I’m much different from most citizens, though it does help to be in a small community now. My mother said she wanted to talk about my brain-damaged brother, but was so afraid of doing it that she would shut any conversation down. I ought to have gone to a social worker of some kind. I had no idea there was a closed-skull trauma specialist at OHSU. My minister friends were as much at sea as I was, though they meant well.
In the days of the worst trouble, I was very young and the complexity of Bob’s life -- twice as long as mine -- tied my hands. He wanted me excluded. After the divorce I was hard to explain to schools and doctors: a former step-grandmother third wife dealing with a runaway kid who’s living with a family not her own in order to escape alcoholism, but who is drinking herself and needs multiple abortions but doesn’t want them? No practical evidence -- many possible motives. This is the sort of thing that “SVU” deals with. I think for many people it is a map to use in their own lives. It is almost entirely outside the education of ministers, but people like Dear Abby constantly say, “Go to your minister.”
To watch a long (300 episodes now) intense series like this on DVD’s is like a book performed. One can proceed at one’s own pace -- I find myself stopping to walk around and the day I watched three discs of “Oz” (twelve episodes) I was like a drunk for a while. Literally staggered. There is always a strong point of view, partly guided by Dick Wolf and inspired by the day’s news, but I’m always aware that every script comes from intelligent, hip, probably educated, probably English majors, sitting around a table suggesting premises and working out the plot line. It is THEIR morality that is filtering into the culture and I do not think it is a bad thing.
Sometimes it is not a real thing. They only know their own lives. There is so much more that they have no idea even exists. In interview "extras," Mariska said that when she began making contacts to do research she realized that there is far more abuse and sexual abuse than she had ever guessed. "It's just everywhere." And Chris said that women on the street would throw their arms around him in gratitude for the fictional defense of women like themselves. For too many people -- male, female and juvenile victims -- there are no heroes.