Speed Reads


John Oliver explains the serious problems with Law & Order, 'the king of cop shows'

John Oliver dedicated the bulk of Sunday's Last Week Tonight to a different TV show, Law & Order, "the king of cop shows." With great power comes great responsibility, as the saying goes, and Oliver explained why this king of cop shows is reigning with a reckless (if admittedly entertaining) disregard for the fundamental truth about law and order — and why that matters. 

"Law & Order is on all the time, and for many it is comfort TV," Oliver said. "But it, and shows like it, have a real impact," improving people's views on the integrity and efficacy of cops and shaping their views of the legal system. "It can be genuinely alarming just how seriously some people take the show," including cops, he added. So "we thought tonight we would take a look at what this franchise has actually been teaching us." 

First, 100 percent of Law & Order episodes include an arrest and trial, while 97 percent of criminal cases don't go to trial, Oliver noted. And unlike shows like Perry Mason, where heroic defense attorneys keep innocent people from jail, Law & Order is all about prosecutors nailing the criminals despite obstructive, manipulative defense lawyers. The show's creator and steward, former ad writer Dick Wolf, says he is "unabashedly pro-law enforcement," and it shows.

"The result of all of these creative decisions 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 said. "But maybe the best expression of the disparity between Law & Order and real life is its most popular spinoff, SVU. It is a show built on the appeal of having cops who will stop at nothing to crack horrific cases." He explained the dispiriting reality.

"Law & Order is never going to grapple with the reality of policing in a meaningful way for the same reasons that Daniel Tiger won't do it," Oliver said, "and honestly you'd be pretty weirded out if it ever did. 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." Enjoy the show, he said, but recognize that it's propagandistic fantasy and enjoy responsibly.