John Oliver took a critical look at the Law & Order franchise on Sunday’s Last Week Tonight.
He started out by noting that creator Dick Wolf was a huge fan of Dragnet as a boy, which inspired him to create his long-running TV franchise as an adult (after he created a series of airline commercials now considered sexist).
After expressing alarm that several real-life officers of the law have said they have learned how to do their job by watching Law & Order and its spinoffs, Oliver turned his focus to Wolf. Oliver noted that Wolf has a “close, behind-the-scenes relationship with the NYPD, employing officers as consultants and boasting about the access he had.”
He cited an interview with an unnamed writer on the show noting that there was a feeling that if the police were portrayed in a negative light, the NYPD “could make it very difficult for us to shoot in New York.”
This “does make sense, doesn’t it?” Oliver quipped. “The NYPD is famously anti-shooting unless they are the ones doing it.”
As a result of collaborating closely with police, the franchise does get some details accurate, Oliver noted, “like specific laws, jargon and crime scene procedures. But crucially it also makes a lot of choices that significantly distort the big picture of police.” That includes always arresting the correct perpetrator halfway through the episode and always seeing justice served at the end of the episode. But in reality, Oliver noted, not every case gets solved, and 97 percent of cases never go to trial, due to plea deals.
“Obviously, Law & Order cannot reflect that reality,” Oliver said. “It would be unwatchable. Nobody wants to watch a show where 97 percent of episodes end with two lawyers striking a deal in a windowless room and then you get to watch the defendant serve six months and struggle to get a job at their local Jiffy Lube.”
Oliver cited a story showing that the defendants on the show are “disproportionately white, male, older and from the middle or upper classes,” which he said Wolf has explained by saying “there are no rich-white-guy pressure group. You can do anything to want to rich white guys and nobody cares.”
However, Oliver argued, Wolf “wants people to like” the “good guy cops” and therefore having the defendants disproportionately target people of color would not accomplish that.
But the result of this, he argued, is that “instead of depicting a flawed system riddled with structural racism, the show presents exceptionally competent cops working within a largely fair framework that mostly convicts white people.”
Oliver referenced an interview that Law & Order: SVU’s former longtime showrunner Warren Leight did for ’s Lesley Goldberg and Daniel Fienberg for their TV’s Top 5 podcast in the wake of George Floyd’s death by Minneapolis police two years ago.
Asked whether Leight thinks cops are portrayed “too positively” on TV, Leight answered, “Individually am I … mis-contributing to society? I don’t know. Collectively, are we? Yeah.” He went on to say that it’s not likely that any of the Law & Order shows would do an episode based on “cops behaving illegal. That’s not part of … Dick Wolf’s brand.”
Said Oliver: “Law & Order is never going to grapple with the reality of policing in a meaningful way. … Because fundamentally, the person who is responsible for Law & Order and its brand is Dick Wolf, and he knows exactly what he wants his shows to do and, importantly, not to do.”
He showed part of a vintage interview where Wolf said “we’re not there to do Abner Louima” — referring to the Black man who was beaten and sodomized by by NYPD police officers in 1997. “That’s a terrible thing that happened, but that represents one or two bad apples in a police force of 35,000 people,” Wolf said, adding that the show is a good recruiting tool for the police force. To which Oliver replied that such tools are often “a propagandized, hero-washed version of the truth — a truth, which is more often than not, very ugly.”
He ended by reminding viewers that a TV show and does not represent reality, much like Grey’s Anatomy is not an accurate representation of what goes on inside a hospital.
Law & Order is “presenting a world where the cops can always figure out who did it, defense attorneys are irritating obstacles to be overcome, and even if a cop roughs up a suspect, it’s all in pursuit of a just outcome.”
He summed it by up noting that the show is basically a commercial for the police — “but it’s an ad for a defective product.”
has reached out to NBC and Wolf’s rep for comment.