Not an absolute definition of American culture, but Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is back for it’s 22nd season. As impressive as the long-running show has been over the past two decades, we’ve come to expect quality primetime drama from NBC’s flagship on Thursdays. The kind of escape from reality drama that we dive into on the small screen when we’re looking to escape from the turbulent year we have had. Well, maybe.
A controversial episode was featured to kickoff this season chock full of every contentious issue we’ve been confronted with in America this year. The show that starts with the exalted “DUN DUN” ran through the gambit of popular topics of the year, showing us wrongly accused black men being profiled, Karens calling the police, law enforcement encounters caught on body cam, protesting, potential COVID-19 exposures, the public’s fascination in capturing every moment of 2020 while streaming on a cell phone, mistrust of police, you name it. And that was all within just the first two minutes.
The show, famous for featuring storylines “ripped from the headlines” didn’t fashion this particular episode from just one headline we’ve seen on TV news, but really a multitude of them. And it isn’t just the headline of controversial topics span from America’s 2020, we’re still in a global pandemic after all. So we also see our new reality portrayed on screen. Temperature checks, hand sanitizing, facial covering wearing (and reminders) and social distancing measures all in this episode and will likely need to be depicted on TV from here on out as we reflect society in our televised productions.
All the while, considering this being Special Victims Unit, the point of the show was centered around a sexual assault of a young man. The suspect arrested was one of those protesting “defund the police” after his DNA was collected from his facemask when detectives had him switch to another one. But unfortunately the damage was already done when the wrong guy, a black man, was arrested and questioned for the crime he didn’t commit.
So naturally, this being a police drama, it now focuses on the practices, issues and trials that many in the profession may face. The show acknowledges that police are under a microscope. George Floyd’s name is invoked a couple times throughout the episode. Law enforcement credibility is question due to racial biases and differences. Of course we all know the now Captain Olivia Benson is one of TV’s fan-favorite heroines. We’ve seen her grow and fight crime for two decades always looking out for the victims of domestic and sexual based offenses, no matter the background or creed of persons involved. But even she was not immune to a perceived implicit racial bias to lead to, not just her questioning herself, but even her very own son as well.
Confronting these issues that 2020 has brought us head-on is a bold move by the showrunners of Law & Order: SVU. One of the first shows to start shooting and airing new episodes in the pandemic world we’re starting to see how COVID-19 will be depicted in fiction. The coronavirus is an important issue to address, even if its in TV tale. The way our country faces unfairness and prejudice amongst its own people is also important to address. Millions have trusted Law & Order: SVU to provide exceptional dramatic narrative. We can hope they provide due justice to the issues we’re facing in our new escape from reality.