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Let’s Talk About ‘Law & Order’ as Copaganda

Sam Waterston, Anthony Anderson, and Jeffrey Donovan in Law & Order (1990)

During the summers of 2020-2021, the George Floyd protests caused an emergence of racial consciousness across many platforms—a lot of it superficial. Yet, it started conversations in media, especially around cop shows, including reality TV, scripted, and even supernatural shows. The term “copaganda” emerged to explain how cop shows perpetuate the ideas that cops are working to protect people, that civil liberties need to be stepped on to bring criminals to justice, and that the state is working for the truth and justice—not just optics.

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One of the biggest offenders of this is the Law & Order franchise.

Hardly the first piece of copaganda, but after thirty-two years on the air in some incarnation, Law & Order has become the premier show about cops and prosecutors, as defense attorneys have faded away from leading crime shows. (Perry Mason can only save us so many times.) I’ve spoke about Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and how it constantly highlights the flaws in the system, but by accident. It has also been discussed by Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.

Dick Wolf, the creator of the franchise, has, as highlighted in the above tweets, looked to use the show to create an image of prosecutors, and therefore you must have criminals to be put away. The show also, in order to not have audiences feel bad, tends to have low amounts of false imprisonment, and higher income inmates. During Oliver’s segment on the series, he shows an interview were Wolf, in conversation, addresses that the show doesn’t highlight police brutality often because “that represents one or two bad apples in a police force of 35,000 people.”

Then there is the question of … Why do people watch copaganda? Like a lot of true crime, it provides a sense of safety. Police dramas like this take place in huge, mostly liberal, cities. Folks already see crime as urban, and even in blue states, the police force can still victimize people but can have a huge amount of protest to pretend it is having a “conversation.” For those in other places, it isolates crime to a certain region and also allows you to root for officers who are doing their best with “their hands tied.” Plus, you invest in the characters, so you trust Olivia to do the right thing and that any mistakes she makes are earnest ones, regardless of how that matches up to reality.

And it works, because even I still watch SVU because I am still oddly comforted by Olivia Benson.

(featured image: NBC)

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Princess Weekes
Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.

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