Policing the Procedural (on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit)

In May and June 2020, Americans gathered en masse to oppose U.S. law enforcement’s routine murders of Black civilians. Armed with their iPhones, protestors abandoned their tv sets and computer screens—in front of which many had been parked for months due to Covid-19-related stay-at-home orders—for the streets. George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020, captured on video by seventeen-year-old Darnella Frazier and virally spread across media platforms, catalyzed the wave of national resistance—one that went global as its images were broadcast around the world. Frazier’s video was not the first of its kind, nor were the demonstrations that erupted in its wake. But a social awakening did take place in the summer of 2020 that tore a substantial number of otherwise complacent (often white liberal) Americans away from their epic Netflix marathons for long enough to at least consider policing as a problem. If only fleetingly, they realized that instead of a sickening bottle episode in U.S. law enforcement’s long history, the murder of George Floyd was the latest installment of a police procedural in which the perpetrator is always a cop who gets off scot-free.

Some commentators claimed it was the ceaseless replay of Frazier’s video, its “binge-broadcast[ing],” in Melanye Price’s words, that awoke these otherwise passive audiences to the carceral state’s brutality. Others, like Price herself did in The New York Times, insisted that the video’s incessant looping retraumatized audiences already painfully aware of the procedural nature of Floyd’s murder—its embodiment of law enforcement business as usual. A familiar question resurfaced: does watching police violence performed over and over again on the overlapping screens that form the visual fabric of contemporary life desensitize, trigger, and/or politicize the viewer? The question—whose answers include “depends who’s watching” and “depends on the context”—had of course been posed since well before 1992, when a jury’s acquittal of the cops who assaulted Rodney King was widely attributed to the jurors’ overexposure to the famous video of King’s beating. But June 2020 saw a new variant on the usual discussion of the numbing and/or heightening qualities of police brutality’s repetitive consumption. A flurry of treatises about binge-watching and images of cop violence hit the internet, spanning viral civilian documentary footage like Frazier’s, twenty-four-hour tv news coverage, and multi-season police procedurals.

Strongly linked to the popular notion of “comfort tv”—i.e. television that isn’t necessarily “feel-good” in its content, genres, or themes, but whose viewing nonetheless confers upon the watcher a sense of cocoon-like safety—“binge-watching” usually indicates the voluntary consumption of back-to-back episodes of television, particularly via streaming platforms, which purport to offer the viewer an unprecedented amount of agency over what they watch. The term entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2018, but Merriam-Webster dates its origin to 2003, and it’s widely known that “binge-watching” was used internally at Netflix as early as 2011, not only to describe viewers’ engagement with the service’s streaming content (introduced in 2007), but also to refer to the marathoning customers were already doing when Netflix only provided DVDs through the mail. “Binge-watching” is thus a portable descriptor, one that might also be applied to the consumption of back-to-back YouTube videos, the act of scrolling through TikTok or Instagram Reels, the arcane practice of viewing VHS tapes back-to-back, and even the experience of watching live television Raymond Williams once called “flow.” 

Naysayers and Netflix CEOs would, of course, argue that the difference between watching the television of old and the streaming content of now is choice—that the tv we used to watch was programmed for us, while the tv we watch today is entirely up to us. Hence the casting of excessive viewing as bingeing, a more agentive term than that old favorite “couch potato.” But didn’t the “flow” of old give us comfort? Wasn’t it a choice to turn on the news? And isn’t it a choice, today, to doomscroll through the identical video clips the algorithm has relentlessly displayed in your Twitter feed? This is why Price calls the mass sharing of Frazier’s video “binge-broadcast[ing].” Virality, and the platforms that run on it, have taken bingeing to a new level, making it possible, indeed probable, to watch the same “episode” back-to-back-to-back. In the current media landscape, there’s an uncomfortable intimacy not just between civilian footage of police violence and the fictional worlds pictured in police procedurals, but between the feelings that may accompany their recurrent consumption.

Thus, in the rash of think pieces written on the police procedural that followed the circulation of Frazier’s footage of Floyd’s murder, March and April 2020’s “comfort tv” was recast as June and July 2020’s brainwashing “copaganda.” Long-running staples like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) were publicly renounced by multiple critics, whose decisions to stop consuming the cop show’s morally bankrupt representations were sometimes framed as activism. Titles like “Saying Goodbye to Law & Order” (Jordan Calhoun for The Atlantic), “I’m Rethinking My Love For Law & Order SVU” (Katherine Singh for Fashion), and “Sorry, Olivia Benson Is Canceled Too” (EJ Dickson for Rolling Stone), blanketed social media feeds as fans published screeds “[r]eexamining my favorite tv show and its feminist heroine as America questions the age-old police procedural” (Denali Sagner for 34th Street). In more radical instances, cop show cancelations were demanded; some mainstays, like Cops, were actually taken off the air. Then “the discourse,” as it usually does, died down. Covid-related delays aside, by fall 2020 the cop show industrial complex was back to its regularly scheduled programming. And by June 2021, a year after the 2020 uprisings, sites like Paste had returned to ranking “The 20 Best Crime Shows on Netflix.” If Price’s editorial and others like it had prompted privileged audiences to interrogate their own “content[ment]” with repeated images of police violence, in the end they’d chosen comfort over criticism.

Yet it’s worth rewinding to the repudiations of June 2020 and their immediate aftermath to consider what it is that makes the cop show, and SVU in particular, so resistant to reproach and immune to reform—and so pleasurable to binge in spite (or because) of it all. More importantly, as someone who inhabits the contradictory positions of tv critic, SVU fan, and prison industrial complex abolitionist, I’m obliged to wonder what will become of the police procedural and its endless marathons when abolition is achieved.


Reformists might argue that the rebellions of 2020 succeeded at reconceptualizing the police procedural, literally re-forming the genre into one whose scripts and plot now bend toward justice. On June 25, 2021, following their forced three-week-long binge of the various death reels uncovered during the investigation into Floyd’s murder, the jury in the Chauvin trial returned the guilty verdict that shook the world, sending the killer cop to prison in a finale that looked more like tv than real life. In the classic tv police procedural, there are “good cops” and “bad cops”: in SVU, which also happens to be the longest-running primetime U.S. live-action series in tv’s history, Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) is the consummate good cop, the kind who unfailingly exposes dirty officers and corrupt precincts in her pursuit of justice for all victims of sexual violence. On Benson’s watch, bad cops not only get clocked; they get convicted by her morally upstanding colleagues in the DA’s office while she nods approvingly from the prosecution’s side of the courtroom. Similarly, during the Chauvin trial, fellow cops testified against their colleague with abandon, seeming animated more by their desperate desire to distance themselves from a globally denounced monster than by any brush with conscience. Livestreamed by a host of media outlets, including nineties throwback Court TV, the trial, CNN reported, featured an “unprecedented” quality and quantity of police testimony, thus emblematizing the “piercing of the so-called blue wall of silence” that ensures cops won’t rat each other out. It was as if the proceedings had realized SVU’s central fantasy that “a few bad apples” does not a broken system make.

This is the procedural promise: that once a single bad guy is put away, the next one can be found and put away, and then the next, and then the next. Episode by episode, the “thin blue line” never wavers, even when the defendant is a cop. Yet just as the credits were rolling on Chauvin, another episode of the real-life binge had already begun with the murder of sixteen-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant by Ohio cop Nicholas Reardon. In the latter case, as in most that aren’t made for tv, narrative closure remains unlikely. And whether or not it’s been scripted for the small screen, a satisfactory finale can never bring a victim back to life.

It’s one thing to rewrite the police procedural’s script and replot its action, but it’s a whole other thing—a transformative thing—to discontinue the show, bankrupt the network, and eradicate the platform. In addition to expanding the reach of the Black Lives Matter movement, catalyzed in 2013 upon George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the 2012 murder of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, the 2020 uprisings provoked widespread national conversation about a possibility activists had long been working toward but which the political mainstream continues to find ludicrous: that of abolition. Progressives who once unquestioningly supported law enforcement reform began—with the help of editorials in the New York Times and Teen Vogue—to consider what it might mean to truly “cancel” cops: to defund police and ultimately end policing.

Alongside these popular discussions of the anti-Black, racist, misogynistic, transphobic, and homophobic workings of the carceral system (the same murderous procedures that give the police procedural its generic classification) arose the aforementioned debates about that same system as seen on tv. At issue was not only the usual positive media coverage of the police, the “thanks to our brave men in blue” that reliably precedes the names of the victims of a wholly preventable tragedy, but the scores of other televisual fare from reality formats like Cops to scripted dramas like Chicago P.D. that serve as pro–law enforcement propaganda. Such programming is the calculated complement to live news broadcasts that might picture, on a given day, cops teargassing peaceful marchers or, alternatively, opening up barricades to let armed white supremacists into the U.S. Capitol. Even when cops don’t look cute on CNN (which is seldom), cop shows have their backs, pacifying audiences with “behind the scenes” glimpses of “real police work” and sensitive, humanistic portrayals of those who allegedly “protect and serve.” In its dalliances with moral complexity and flirtations with the notion that the whole damn system might just be guilty as hell, the police procedural, as Kathryn VanArendonk has observed, normalizes the cop-as-protagonist and the criminal as bit player. There one episode and gone the next, the perpetrator vanishes into incarceration while the victim, the witness, the wrongly accused, the journalist covering the case, and everyone else simply vanishes, leaving the show’s lead cop/s alone to ponder the right, wrong, or, most likely, ambiguity of what has occurred. “Good cops” like SVU’s beloved Benson may even toy with the idea of police reform. But as a matter of procedure, the police procedural structurally forecloses the question, much less the very real possibility, of abolition, since at the end of the day, the cops cannot be called upon to abolish themselves.

And yet, we binge.

Well, some of us, anyway.

For twenty-two seasons and counting, Olivia Benson—a cop who, as cops do, often uses the phrase “good shooting” to describe the killing of a civilian for the alleged crime of making a cop feel scared—has captivated the hearts and minds of audiences across the globe. During the 2020–21 tv season, SVU averaged 6.78 million viewers, many of them between the ages of eighteen and forty-nine (the most sought-after demographic in the tv industry). Among SVU’s dedicated viewers are some of my good friends, who crisscross these demographics. Their avowed politics range from reformist to abolitionist and no one is self-professedly pro-cop. But they love Olivia Benson, and as they’ve shepherded me, a novice viewer, into the SVU universe, I’ve come to understand why, during the 2020 uprisings, Twitter was rife with the joke that “ACAB [All Cops Are Bastards] except for Olivia Benson,” and then with the killjoy’s necessary retort that “ACAB YES EVEN OLIVIA BENSON AND I LOVE HER” (@strugglesaurus). These posts might as well have been authored by my own queer lefty friends, two of whom recently showed up for a hike sporting matching Olivia Benson tee shirts. Since this essay sent me deep into SVU’s catalog, every season of which is available on Hulu as of this writing, I too have grown fond of Benson. Like many, I’m also captivated by the show’s classic procedural structure—by the conceptual “reset button” pressed between every installment that enables the next one to start (more or less) fresh. In the words of scholar and superfan Poulomi Saha, it’s Benson’s enduring presence as SVU’s “moral compass” across the show’s discrete yet highly repetitive 516 episodes (and counting) that makes its formula so successful.

Like its predecessor Law & Order, SVU can be marathoned or binged, broadcast nonlinearly or streamed from start to finish with equal degrees of satisfaction. The show’s episodic format entails that its characters, location, and central focus remain more or less consistent across episodes (typically old cast members depart and new ones arrive between seasons), while the show’s plot, problematic, and message differ from episode to episode. Each discrete episode of SVU features a separate case whose exposition follows an established pattern. Most pleasurably, whether the series is viewed chronologically or not, each individual episode from 1999 to the present includes at least one appearance by an actor you know from somewhere else—what I call the episode’s “Easter egg/s.” An Easter egg could be Robin Williams, but it could also be Ludacris, or Elizabeth Banks, or “that guy from Stranger Things,” or just “that woman from that show” you can’t remember. SVU thus serves as a kind of visual archive of the past twenty-two years of television, or at least of the motley cast of characters who’ve been kicking around the industry’s various studios since well before the late nineties.

But an Easter egg is more than just a cameo—if an appearance by a (usually) unfamous actor can even be called that. It’s a walk-on mostly limited to the role of victim, perpetrator, or witness, since the central part of cop is always already occupied. The Easter egg is funny, an intertextual joke, for that very reason: it collapses someone you’ve seen before into a rando, a generic figure. In the context of SVU, of course, that figure has either experienced, enacted, or been in close proximity to profound and often deadly violence. So the role of Easter egg is clinched by the uncanniness of a familiar face become unfamiliar, rendered an anonymous recipient, culprit, or observer of trauma. Henri Bergson argues that laughter is provoked by the appearance of involuntarity, which means laughter is fundamentally violent, since laughter, frequently said to be uncontrollable, is itself caused by something, typically a human body, that looks out of control. When I’m watching SVU, I know that the Easter egg is the result of a casting decision, but every time they show up it’s like, “What are you doing here? How random!” The other day I texted a friend to tell her Shiri Appleby was in the episode I was watching and she replied, “Oh she’s so annoying in that episode / When she gets raped by her therapist?” I wrote back, “No in this ep she gets gang-raped by some other army folks (she’s in the service) / …LOL.” Not only is my friend a therapist herself and a staunch advocate against sexual violence; we both somehow found this low-level celebrity’s two-time appearance on the show, playing a different rape victim in each episode, to be utterly hilarious. “Season 16 ep 16 Marcia cross from Melrose place is the rapist!!!” my friend later texted me gleefully. She’d found another Easter egg.

Sanctioned by SVU’s procedural format and sharpened by its many seasons’ worth of episodes, our callousness, or echoing Price our “content[ment] with the violence”—rather than our alleged desensitization to the violence, since one chooses to watch the show again, and again, and again—is worlds away from the gravitas with which Olivia Benson ritually approaches her job and its attendant cast of characters. Like any hard-boiled detective, Benson has a matter-of-fact attitude toward violence, but she’s not at all unsentimental—a quality usually reserved for masculine protagonists. As a child of rape whose story gradually unfolds during the course of the series’ first several seasons, Benson has a personal stake in getting justice for each and every victim whose file crosses her desk. Since her feminine capacity for empathy sometimes short-circuits her objectivity (surprise surprise!), she’s partnered with a male detective, the tatted-up aggro transphobe Elliott Stabler (Chris Meloni), a protective father who is strangely oblivious to his teenage daughter’s discomfort when he kisses her on the lips. What’s interesting about SVU, and a tad less typical of the genre, is the show’s easy persistence beyond Stabler’s departure at the close of Season 12. Other mitigating masculine forces are brought to bear on Benson after his exit (among them the flamboyant assistant district attorney Rafael Barba, played by Raúl Esparza), but they don’t replicate her former colleague’s patronizing checks and balances. In fact, since Stabler left the Special Victims Unit—and only since then—Benson has been steadily promoted every several seasons. She’s currently the squad’s captain. Across the long arc of SVU, then, runs the popular feminist narrative that if you “lead with empathy” you’ll be an even better boss than the previous guy. Unfortunately, you’ll still be a boss. And a cop.

Much of the handwringing about sacrificing SVU (at times dashed with a hint of self-congratulation for taking this brave step toward a police-free future) can, I think, be explained by the show’s campiness—what scholar Gillian Harkins, in her 2020 book Virtual Pedophilia, calls its core “contraction between sincerity and sensationalism.” One has only to watch SVU’s opening credits to get the sense that it’s tongue-in-cheek tv. There, the franchise’s clarinet-heavy theme, replete with what my spouse calls “crotchy” electric guitar riffs, scores a montage of mostly still, black-and-white images, some overt copaganda (a Black police officer cradling a Black boy in his arms, a white lady cop comforting a distraught white woman), others meant to evoke law enforcement documentation of sex crimes. The camera pans down a photograph of an empty playground swing as the image ominously reverses to its negative; it zooms out from a picture of a woman’s pale legs, pantyhose torn, as the word “Molestation” scrolls across the bottom of the frame in a less-than-subtle nod to the show’s “ripped from the headlines” branding. Other stills depict brown hands emerging from prison bars, brown hands in handcuffs, a multiracial selection of mugshots, a wide-eyed Asian baby, and a group of (presumably) sex workers of color, implying, unsurprisingly, that the consummate criminal is Black or brown, the consummate victim of child sex trafficking Asian, and the consummate rape victim a white woman. Yet the images all trade in nostalgia: their gritty, degraded quality recalls the New York of the 1980s—and their cops’ vintage mustaches amplify the historical association.

That SVU’s opening montage is a sex-crime-specific re-creation of the original Law & Order opening credits from 1990 is of course what creates this temporal confusion. For its part, the SVU version has barely changed since the series’ first airing in 1999, suggesting that “law and order” is a uniquely old-fashioned, consistent business, while cloaking the show in a comical aura of anachronism. Through this framing sequence and SVU’s endless parade of, in Harkins’s words, “knowing jokes about its own campiness,” the show presents as self-aware and at times self-critical. Even if you hate cops, you’ll probably find it hard to stop watching. If nothing else you may find yourself succumbing to autoplay after intending to check out just a single episode, or (if you still dabble in network tv) acceding to one of USA Network’s character-based marathons, casually on the lookout for more Easter eggs.

You may do this in spite or perhaps even because of the fact that SVU has, several times, spectacularly failed to address the structures of anti-Blackness and law enforcement violence against Black people that have steadily gained national attention since Trayvon Martin’s 2012 murder. For though the show’s opening credits visually code Black and brown bodies as suspect (via the montage’s manacled hands, for example), its perpetrators tend to be white men and women. Less surprisingly, SVU’s victims trend heavily toward white femininity. The show thus enlists its viewers to suss out which creepy white man (or lascivious lady) is or is not responsible for the sexual violation of a usually white woman or child.

SVU-watchers are schooled in the art of assessing a potential perpetrator’s culpability by what Harkins calls the show’s “procedural tone,” which “trains audiences to recognize and negotiate the relations between” criminal psychology, forensics, and surface appearances to arrive at a provisional whodunit. “Procedural tone,” writes Harkins, channeling Sianne Ngai, is “a feeling that no one within the [show] directly feels but on which the [show] seems to run,” a spidey sense created between SVU and its viewers. The procedural gives its fans a kind of virtual toolkit for sex crime detection; using its armchair techniques, viewers can play at fishing out the white male sex criminal from the sea of white male normativity into which he would otherwise disappear. Though surveillance and other technologies of detection have proliferated during the course of SVU’s long run, the show remains, Harkins observes, “low tech” in its representation of detective work and staunch in its conviction that “humans are [still] the best technology.” Its heroes continue to identify (white) perpetrators through the archaic procedures of “[i]n-person observation and gut feeling”—with only occasional help from the odd security camera. In fact, SVU’s recent, clumsy attempts to comment on anti-Blackness in policing are among the few episodes where digital technologies appear as parts of the fabric of contemporary life with special relevance for law enforcement. When they are depicted, these technologies, in particular the smartphone and the viral videos to which it gives rise, interfere with police procedure, throwing a wrench into its luddite gears. Rather than an inadvertent witness, the Black bystander who possesses the smartphone is a savvy director, framing their material in a visually compelling manner to produce a “show” convincing enough to indict.


As cop tv itself, nothing causes SVU more anxiety than the notion that another, more bingeable cop show exists, and that this more telegenic fare may be steadily siphoning off its viewers. The show’s anxiety (if I may anthropomorphize a tv series) is especially palpable in an episode from the post-Stabler era, where Benson serves as the show’s primary protagonist. Titled “Community Policing,” this 2015 episode opens with a young white mother who has just suffered a “push-in rape”; she tells Benson that the perp was a tall Black man. By coincidence, the victim’s brother-in-law is a cop, known to some of the other officers on the case. The brother-in-law is “good police,” one of them quips, meaning the cops are now out to get someone who’s harmed one of their own. After being pointed toward a tall Black man on a bodega security feed, they conclude that he’s their guy, despite the fact that the angle only captures him from the back, obscuring his face. When the potential perp is located (presumably owing to the easily identifiable basketball jersey he’s wearing), he’s chased down and shot. He later dies at the hospital. His murder is not shown to the viewer. Instead, Benson is pictured pulling up to the scene just as gunfire rings out. The next two shots reveal the perp-turned-vic lifeless on the ground, getting handcuffed postmortem. “He was going for his gun,” a female officer says breathlessly. As it quickly becomes clear that the dying young man isn’t the perp and doesn’t even have a gun, a disgruntled crowd begins to gather, placing the cops on a kind of impromptu proscenium. A young Black woman shouts at the officers, her tone dramatically accusatory: “Cops shoot another unarmed Black man, then leave him to die?” The police get squirrely, even the unassailable Benson. “Confiscate phones,” Benson says to Fin Tutuola (Ice-T), one of two Black officers on the scene yet uninvolved in the shooting. “Somebody could have gotten this on video.” “This crowd isn’t gonna help us,” Tutuola replies.

The native informant is indeed correct. The crowd does not help the police. Predictably, it does the opposite. When the parents of the episode’s second victim decide to conduct a “parallel investigation” into their son’s murder, their lawyer blindsides the cops by going on live tv to reveal newfound video of the shooting. Benson observes this shocking broadcast. Shot from a high angle, the cellphone footage depicts the murder as witnessed through the window of a resident living “across the way.” As if speaking to a jury, the lawyer performs a visual analysis of the video, once in real time and then again in slow motion, so slow that the viewer can see when “the ninth and final bullet pierces [Terrence Reynolds’s] body.” Glued to the tv screen, Benson’s eyes water. But she’s still convinced that it was a “good shooting.” “I know this looks bad,” she says, “but this is not the angle that they had. If it were, of course they would never have taken the shot.” Backing her up, Benson’s colleague Captain Reece (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), the other Black officer present at the scene, agrees. “They were following procedure,” he says. This language is repeated ad nauseum at the resulting grand jury proceedings, by the officers who committed the murder as well as by Benson, testifying as a witness. “They followed procedure,” she repeats unconvincingly. When the “bystander video” is shown in court on a large flatscreen monitor (in real time this time, and for the third time in the episode), a shooting officer gets dewy-eyed, but he maintains that “I didn’t have the angle that you have here now.” The grand jury, however, has only seen Reynolds’s murder from the scathingly high angle afforded by the cellphone footage, remediated by the courtroom’s mobile tv screen. It’s this angle that leads them to request to indict the involved officers on “more serious charges,” including first-degree manslaughter. As the victim’s parents, lawyer, and pastor declare victory, again displaying their media and public relations prowess, the accused cops and their compatriots drink angrily. Thanks to the sneaky, invisible presence of a mobile recording technology, they’ve lost control of the narrative, and not for the last time. Somehow, the amateur footage is perfectly convincing and highly telegenic. Somehow, there are no competing angles to be found.

SVU’s 2021 season (and its twenty-second on air) even more forcefully frames civilian video footage as a thorn in the side of “good cops” everywhere, a sophisticated form of police surveillance—in the sense of surveillance of the police. After the customary announcement that “in the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous”—the iconic phrase that inspired Carmen Maria Machado’s novella “Especially Heinous,” in which the author fictively (and riotously) summarizes each and every episode of SVU’s first twelve seasons—the Season 22 premiere, titled “Guardians and Gladiators,” cold opens through the oblong window of a simulated cellphone video. Its subject is a hysterical white woman and her prepubescent son; its maker is a young Black man, Jayvon Brown (Blake Morris), who directly addresses his future audience; and its location, we soon learn, is Central Park’s famous Ramble. It’s immediately obvious that the scene is “ripped” from the highly publicized story of Christian Cooper, a Black birder who filmed his encounter with Amy Cooper, a white woman (no relation), as she called the cops on him for asking her to leash her dog in the Ramble (where leashing is in fact required). The Cooper incident occurred on the same day that George Floyd was murdered; the adjacent SVU episode was broadcast less than six months later. Cooper’s video, which went viral after his sister posted it to Twitter, captures his accoster breathlessly telling a 9-1-1 operator that “There is an African American man . . . recording me and threatening myself and my dog.” Cooper does not turn the camera on himself. At one point when the woman approaches the birder-turned-documentarian, her gesticulating body growing larger in the frame, Cooper says softly from offscreen, “Please don’t come close to me. . . . Please don’t come close to me.” His voice sounds strained.

By contrast, in SVU’s fictionalization of the event, the young man being profiled is positively theatrical. “Here she goes, y’all,” Brown says smugly, after his camera oddly pans from the cop-calling white woman to his own face, as if he’s spent his entire morning waiting for a Karen he could make an example of. The camera then turns back on its specimen of white racist flustration and the videographer steps into the frame, narrating in anticipation of his clip’s incipient virality: “This is America. 2020,” he says, scoffing and shaking his head in an exaggerated fashion. The sense that Brown isn’t a victim of, or witness to, racial violence, but rather a political documentarian capitalizing on an unfolding situation he may or may not have engineered, is compounded by the video’s cinematography, whose fluid movements and high angles betray that the supposedly lone filmmaker is accompanied by at least one crewmember, likely SVU’s assistant director of photography. Brown’s video, which is to say SVU’s video, doesn’t look like actual cellphone footage, but its parodic quality seamlessly accords with the show’s sincere sensationalism. And after the cops, summoned by Brown’s aggressor, arrive at the scene, the premiere’s earnestly campy, campily earnest vibe ratchets up even further. A standoff between Brown, Karen, the police, and a growing crowd of onlookers ensues, shakily rendered from multiple perspectives through replicated officer bodycam footage, bystander cellphone footage, and Brown’s own cellphone footage, which cuts off as the cops detain him. This perfect storm of surveillance imagery fantasizes a post–May 2020 reality in which police are placed “under a microscope”—as the SVU’s deputy chief Christian Garland (who happens to be Black) intones later in the episode. This new more audio-visually (and thus politically) chaotic reality is captured from the myriad points-of-view afforded by mobile technologies, its cubist representations then streamed and spread across media platforms. In 2015, a single viral witness video was enough to cast doubt on the cops’ “good shooting” of Terrence Reynolds. In 2021, SVU’s premiere suggests, civilian oversight has proliferated out of control, framing cops as criminals before they’ve been given their customary leeway to shoot first and ask questions later.

As racialized and otherwise criminalized people have long known, getting profiled doesn’t feel very good. No, it doesn’t feel very good at all to be the subject of extreme scrutiny just for existing. When Brown gets arrested—for “outstanding warrants” but really for being in the Ramble while Black in proximity to a white woman, her son, and, bizarrely, a rape victim who is discovered in the nearby brush after the cops show up (!)—Tutuola angrily observes, “We’re profiling the guy!” But the real victim here isn’t Brown, it’s the police, who in the melee of smartphone-brandishing complainants, suspects, victims, and cop-hating bystanders, haven’t had the space or privacy to detain another unarmed Black man in peace. Until Benson arrives (owing to the convenient materialization of the “sexually based offense” mentioned earlier) the viewer sees the cops solely through the carceral eyes of their various surveyors. When Benson enters the Ramble, however, the camera resumes its usual omniscient perspective. “I’m a police officer,” Benson states firmly in her luscious contralto, and it’s as if the scene snaps back to reality, though what it’s really done is transition from mock cinema verité to dramatic realism. But since SVU, with the support of the prison industrial complex, has trained its viewers to identify the show’s realist aesthetic as belonging to a world in which, in VanArendonk’s words, “cops are always the main characters,” Benson’s entrance feels like a much-needed restoration of objectivity. She, of course, knows how problematic the situation has become. Yet her presence is grounding, not just because she’s the show’s iconic protagonist, but because she’s filmed by an invisible hand. Benson appears unmediated and unbiased, while the scene’s feigned cellphone and bodycam footage evoke the disruptive actions of politically motivated civilians and the dangerous interference of politics in law enforcement procedure itself.

Policing has always been political. But “Guardians and Gladiators” insists that contemporary devices and platforms like iPhones and YouTube are politicizing law enforcement in ways that threaten cops’ ability to enforce the law. The viral, looping, bingeable content generated at events such as Brown’s arrest in the Ramble further obscures a reality already altered by the penetration of the technologies that captured that content to begin with. Again, the police lose control of the narrative. Traffic and surveillance cameras continue to serve the cops’ interests; the additional angles they provide help the police piece together a full picture of the crime and the criminal (unless they lead to fatal racial profiling, as in the case of Terrence Reynolds). And social media is useful in building psychological profiles, establishing whereabouts, identifying affiliations. Trained on the police themselves, however, camera phones become instruments of deceit. Streamed on Facebook, bystander video becomes misdirection.

Within the first ten minutes of the premiere, detective Kat Tamin (Jamie Gray Hyder) effortlessly accesses traffic cam footage on her smartphone, allowing her to track down a new suspect who is revealed to be the perpetrator of the assault in the Ramble. Absurdly (and yet unsurprisingly in SVU’s carnivalesque world), it’s discovered that after committing the rape, the perp, a white frat-bro type with a popped collar, returned to the scene and posed as a belligerent anti-cop demonstrator before posting his own video of the Brown altercation to an unnamed YouTube-like platform. In it, he snarks, “The NYPD, protecting and serving themselves. Defund the Police!” Later, in court, the perp continues to play the role of abolitionist rabble-rouser, stoking the jury’s post–May 2020 anger toward the NYPD to paint himself as yet another victim of police misconduct. Having cannily capitalized on the prevailing taste for anti-cop sentiment, he walks. (His release begs the question constantly posed to police abolitionists: but what about the rapists? Which begs the evergreen reply: cops rape too.) What’s truly striking, though, is how this rapist’s weaponization of cellphone video is juxtaposed with Brown’s documentation of his own harassment by the Karen in the park. Both of these civilian (mis)uses of surveillance technology gum up law enforcement procedure. Brown’s video gets “five million hits” (also on an unspecified platform), so it’s all over the news, getting binged on tv—even at the precinct, to Benson’s visible annoyance. Brown’s clip’s virality distracts from the search for the crime’s actual perpetrator, who’s hidden in plain sight on the internet. By the time the rapist’s post is found and his identity established, Brown has been discharged from custody due to the lack of any evidence against him. But in the two and a half minutes of screen time that have elapsed since his release, he’s filed a lawsuit against the NYPD. The implication is that the chaos of cameras in the Ramble and ensuing avalanche of viral footage created the clusterfuck at hand—rather than the finger-pointing white woman, the rapist, or the cops themselves. The uncomfortable intimacy between civilian video of police violence and the fictional world of the police procedural makes SVU’s creators uncomfortable indeed.

So when Benson’s mid-episode come-to-Jesus moment occurs within the drab environs of an Internal Affairs Bureau conference room, where the stern Black woman captain deposing her kindly throws in a free lesson about “systemic racism” and “implicit bias,” the scene’s form belies its content. From the jump, Benson is “under a microscope,” getting filmed by a dome security camera high on the wall opposite where she sits. As in the premiere’s opening sequence, the device’s simulated point of view is worked into the scene’s visual fabric, capturing America’s favorite cop from the high angle common to surveillance imagery. Benson’s interrogator then sets up a small digital camera on a tripod next to her. Its unblinking red eye stares out from alongside the Black woman’s face, unsubtly implying that Black people are responsible for the increased discomfort of Benson and cops everywhere. As the tension builds, the second device’s point of view makes an appearance; in it, Benson’s face is framed by the camera’s viewfinder, its red “Rec” symbol splashed in the image’s upper right-hand corner like a drop of blood. Filmed in this way, the preternaturally good cop’s defensiveness, her assertion that “I’m not racist” even when she’s confronted with her own obvious racial profiling of Brown, reads as a gut reaction to the sensory and political overload of being a police officer in the United States “after George Floyd.” Within and without the Ramble and juxtaposed with the omniscient perspective afforded Benson and her fellow SVU officers, the cameras trained on law enforcement create not transparency, but confusion. Like deer in the headlights, cops misstep and misspeak. Given the space and time to reflect, they may realize, as Benson does at the episode’s close, that “I have a lot of work to do.” But any necessary police reforms, the episode submits, won’t be achieved from within the twin pressure cookers of civilian and internal oversight. Cops should be allowed to follow their own procedures for accountability.


By the time “Guardians and Gladiators” first aired on November 12, 2020, exactly five months had passed since Mariame Kaba’s publication of her bombshell editorial, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” in the committedly centrist New York Times. The question of whether SVU would be canceled, either figuratively or literally, was no longer a serious one. As lifelong activists like Kaba continued to work toward a world in which justice means something other than the violent practices of policing and incarceration—“law and order”—that structure contemporary reality and its representations, the Covid-era fall tv season proceeded apace. On the eve of SVU’s premiere, a stray think piece by Sage Young for NBC News, still flirting with the summer’s discussion of abolition struck a reformist note, observing that “As the news cycle has moved on from the protests . . . the heat on cop procedurals has been turned down—without claiming any serious casualties. But as new seasons start, critics will be watching closely to see how they handle this opportunity to at least do better.” But what would it mean for SVU to “at least do better” in a tv landscape where, as Young states earlier in the piece, “cop shows will always be cop shows,” which “[b]y their very nature . . . can’t help but reinforce the claim that most cops are good and that the system usually works”? If the cop show can’t alter its nature, if the police procedural’s structure is a foregone conclusion, why bother reforming it at all?

I don’t believe most or any SVU fans, liberal or otherwise, genuinely want the series to “do better”—whatever that even means. As a fan myself, it behooves me to be honest about this fact. I would rather the show (literally) be canceled than ameliorated into something less fun to watch. Perhaps this seems like a crass position. But think of it like this: if the show was just sincerity with no sensationalism, why would I want to watch it? Better a cop show whose absurdity is akin to self-parody than a cop show that’s trying not to be the cop show it most certainly is. And at the end of the day, as “Community Policing” and “Guardians and Gladiators” do indeed demonstrate, “cop shows will always be cop shows,” whether or not they remain hardline or feebly gesture toward reform. Both episodes “rip” stories about racial profiling from the headlines, but the ways those stories are told through cinematography and editing (also literally) frame the cops as not just “the main characters,” but the crimes’ true victims. This is the procedure of the police procedural, the formula for that particularly “formulaic, familiar show that [you] can just let play,” as Young calls it. This is why all those public renunciations of SVU dried up—and why the show, in its twenty-third season at the time of this writing, trudges on. There’s no such thing as a “good cop,” but a good cop show, well, that’s another matter.

So instead of disingenuously demanding that SVU and its ilk “do better,” instead of policing the procedural into some illusion of justice, how about demanding an end to policing and to prisons? What, then, might imagination look like, in this world without cops, without incarceration? What might television be in the absence of the promise of punishment on which so many of its genres, programs, and episodes hinge? For Kaba, dreaming is a central practice of abolition. Can you dream up a cop show without cops? Or, to rephrase Angela Davis’s famous question, are police procedurals obsolete?


*An essay-review of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Created by Dick Wolf. September 1999—, on NBC.


Sarah Rebecca Kessler is a media scholar, television critic, and assistant professor of English at the University of Southern California. Her articles and essays have been published in The Brooklyn Rail, Camera Obscura, Film Quarterly, Triple Canopy, and elsewhere. She is currently working on three books: an academic monograph on vocal politics at the turn of the twenty-first century, a popular account of tv binge-watching, and a scholarly volume on the whale’s evolution as a cultural medium since the early 1970s. She edits the tv section of Public Books and enjoys reading fiction in her spare time.