Rob Patterson

Law + Order = Progress

I'm a Law & Order leftist. Now don't mistake me for a political law-and-order type, though I do have some leanings that way which I believe to be consistent with my politics.

Back in the late 1960s as a teenage longhair (back when long hair could get you beaten up, as well as hassled by the cops), sure, I called the police "pigs." But I've grown up to realize that every society needs forces of order and a system of justice. (This is not the place, however, for me to discuss the failures and merits of them in America or those cops I've run across whose behavior and attitude was definitely piggish.).

Ever since I was a kid, I've had this thing about New York City cop shows, starting with Naked City. Then there was Kojak -- "Who loves ya, baby?" -- and later the early years of NYPD Blue. During my years as a New Yorker, I always got a kick out of how almost every Greek diner in Manhattan, as well as some in the outer boroughs, would have a signed promo pic of Telly Savalas hanging on the wall. And the continuity from Kojak through NYPD Blue was reinforced by both using the image of the Ninth Precinct station house in the East Village as their cop shop.

Law & Order has taken the New York City cop show (Order), added the prosecutorial element (Law), and proliferated it across the offerings on network and cable TV. There's the original Law & Order, as well as Special Victims Unit (aka SVU) and Criminal Intent (CI) in first run. And in the last year the franchise also expanded into the short-lived Trial By Jury and spin off of Conviction, all on NBC. Most of the above can also be seen in reruns on a couple of cable channels.

I don't have the space here to analyze the many individual successes and failures of each different show. But the reason why my DVR is set to record all the Law & Order first runs and I frequently watch the reruns is simple -- at its best, Law & Order offers a compelling vision of fairness and justice. And as we all know, fairness and justice are key tenets of the progressive social and political vision.

Like any good series, they are also character driven. And the franchise has created numerous characters that work their way into your imagination if not your life.

And when the plots really work -- which isn't always, mind you -- the mysteries and twists present compelling puzzles for the viewer to try to second guess. When they are "ripped from the headlines," they can also offer interesting commentary on recent events.

Law & Order even has a conservative character I enjoy: District Attorney Arthur Branch, played by former Republican Senator Fred Dalton Thompson. As much as I find Thompson's knee-jerk "rah, rah, let's support the president" stance distasteful, and symptomatic of the blind and ignorant patriotism that is as big a threat to this nation as al Qaeda, the Branch character seems a decent, principled sort, and that's something always worthy of admiration even if one isn't in agreement with their philosophical point of view.

(Brief digression: I am not the sort of leftist who believes that everyone in this nation should believe as I do -- that's fascism. Nor am I the sort of progressive that says stupid things like, as I've heard far too many so-called leftists say, "I hate Republicans" -- that's prejudice and intolerance that is contradictory to the very notion of being liberal. Sure, admirable Republicans are in sorry short supply these days -- those who actually hold to such worthwhile principles as fiscal prudence, small yet effective government bureaucracy and minimal government intrusion into the lives of its citizens, none of which has to necessarily conflict with a progressive viewpoint and in fact can be learned from. Despite the current state of affairs, one of the beautiful things about the notion of American democracy is that it can result in legislation and policy that is a best-case median compromise among competing philosophies and viewpoints. Yeah, that seems lost forever in these bitterly partisan times, but without believing it can be so it will never be restored.)

Law & Order obviously works, as proven by its proliferation. Its best manifestation might be SVU, where a diverse cast and, over time, delving into the complexities of their personalities has given it a depth that is rare on network TV.

On the other hand, with the new Conviction, that just ended its first season, Law & Order may have jumped the shark with the show's "Sex and the City's DA Office" glossiness and sometimes silly plots, like the season's over-the-top hostage crisis finale. But I watched it anyway, because even underneath the shallowness there remains the Law & Order bedrock of fairness and justice.

Of course, the main reason I watch is entertainment. But what makes me a Law & Order follower is that ideal of fairness and justice. And being a leftist, liberal, progressive, what have you is all about having and striving for ideals. That they end up sometimes being fulfilled on TV makes me feel that maybe, just maybe, they can also do so in real life.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, Aug. 1-15, 2006

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