I am a big LAW AND ORDER: SVU fan. I have been for years. It's consistently one of the best plotted and acted cop shows on TV. I have used episodes of the show as examples in my TV writing classes here and abroad.
That said, I thought this week's episode ("Confession") was repugnant, pointless, and vile.
It demonstrated what a joke network standards & practices have become. The censorship at the networks has nothing to do with content and everything to do with the ratings of the show and the power of the showrunner. No new show, or one with weaker ratings, or one helmed by a b-list showrunner, would ever have been allowed to produce, much less broadcast, this episode.
Dick Wolf shouldn't have been, either.
Tonight's show was about a 17-year-old boy who is fantasizing about raping his six year-old step brother. And it gets more explicit and gruesome from there, with graphic discussions about anal penetration, oral penetration, and the evidence that digital or penile insertion in those areas will leave. An important clue is a semen found on the young boy's dirty clothes in the hamper…but it turns out his father was masturbating in the bathroom and used the clothes to wipe off. There's also time spent with an adult pedophile who talks about his fantasies of sex with kids while we see photos of the children he has been stalking.
And that's the "cleanest" stuff in the episode. My description actually makes it seem tamer than it was and no different than any previous episode of the series. But it actually gets worse. Much worse. Keep in mind, I am a fan of this series and I found this episode shocking, not only in its graphic nature but in it's violence (there was an enormous amount of blood). I couldn't believe it was on broadcast TV and not HBO.
And yet, you can't show a woman's nipple for a split second or say "fuck" on broadcast television without incurring the wrath of the FCC (if you manage to even get it past the networks).
The network will limit how many times you can say "Damn" in an episode but you can talk all you want, and in considerable detail, about a pedophiles raping children. I actually felt sick for the kids who acted in this program (or whose pictures were shown) and was angry at their parents for letting them be used this way.
This was an hour without any entertainment value… without any educational value…frankly, without any value at all. Sure, the acting was great, and the production was top-notch, but to what end? What made this a compelling story worth telling? Why did it need to be made?
I have seen probably a 100+ episodes of SVU, so it's not the subject matter that bothers me. You can't do a show about sex crimes without sex crimes and they have dealt with child molestation before. But usually they have shown some discretion. Usually there is a mystery story worth following, or a social issue worth exploring, or a character worth examining. Something that made the show entertaining, relevant, and thought-provoking. This episode has none of those things. This episode made me want to take a shower to remove the stink.
It was ugly, sick and totally pointless. It had no redeeming value. I honestly don't know if I will be watching L&O:SVU again after this. I have lost respect for the judgment of the showrunners. If this is their idea of compelling television, they are on the wrong track.
I am beginning to think that about a lot of TV's slick procedural dramas, where the violence, mutilated corpses, and serial killings are getting more and more bloody, gruesome and graphic just to keep the attention of viewers (and writers) who have become jaded after thousands of hours and years of this stuff. All you have to do is compare a first season episode of L&O:SVU or CSI with one airing in the last two seasons to see what I mean. They've amped up the explicitness of the gore, violence, and the discussion of the gore and violence, and fooled themselves into thinking that equates with raising the quality of the writing and the depth of the storytelling. It doesn't.
On broadcast network TV now, you can show almost as much blood as you want….hell, you can spend five minutes with the camera lingering on the autopsy of a charred corpse…and discuss in explicit detail the murder, rape and mutilation of the man, woman or child before they were set ablaze. That's entertainment!
But don't you dare show a woman's nipple (unless it has been mutilated and belongs to a corpse) or two people naked (unless they're covered in blood and, preferably, dead), or having sex (unless you're rescuing a victim from being molested or raped) because then you've crossed a line.
On "free" TV we can show graphic violence but not two people in love having sex. We can show naked corpses on an autopsy table, and even watch as they are cut open and their guts exposed, but we can't show two naked people in bed.
What the hell is the matter with us?
I know that's not the first time someone has said what I'm saying. It's become cliche. But finally for me, personally, after seeing this weeks L&O:SVU, I am beginning to wonder if we have gone too far.
What were these writers thinking? What made them believe this was a good show, something that would entertain an audience? What was the network thinking?
Maybe that's the problem: no one gave it a thought at all because they have become so inured to the violence, depicted or discussed, that anything less would seem too tame and pedestrian. We just keep pushing the limits, as if that is the definition of what makes great drama.
If I'm not offending someone, is it good writing? If the viewer isn't turning away, repulsed, have I sacrificed the realism? If it's not as dark and gritty as possible, am I diluting the potential drama? Is that what the writer is thinking?
I worry that pushing the boundaries has become the goal rather than simply telling compelling stories. I'm not saying that's the case at SVU…but that it's something I see happening in broadcast TV as a whole.
I know a lot of TV writers. They look at the acclaim that THE SOPRANOS and THE SHIELD got and they want it, too. Pushing boundaries gets you known. Pushing boundaries gets you Emmys. But pushing boundaries isn't always entertainment. Sometimes it's just vile.
Keep in mind, I am asking myself these questions as not only a fan of gritty police dramas (I love DEXTER, a show where the hero is a serial killer!) but as writer/producer/author of crime fiction myself. I don't want to restrict creative freedom…or stop writers from exploring new dramatic territory…and I'm not telling them that its wrong for drama to be offensive to some people (what viewers found "offensive" about HILL STREET BLUES, MAUDE, etc. seems so tame now). But I do think have a responsibility to think hard about what we are putting out there as entertainment.
Are we trying to entertain? Or simply seeing how far we can go before someone slaps us and says what the hell are you doing?
(The irony here is, of course, that I have been accused of doing exactly what I am railing about here. There were people who reacted to some of my episodes of DIAGNOSIS MURDER — and even some of my books based on the show – the way I reacted to this week's L&O: SVU. And yet if you were to ask anybody in the TV business about DIAGNOSIS MURDER, they would tell you that the show was hopelessly conventional, old-fashioned and tame. I am sure there are TV writers who will read this and see it as evidence that I am out-of-touch and stuck in the past)