After the verdict of the Zimmerman trial was delivered, I, like the majority of my wired, twentysomething friends, spent the rest of the evening on Twitter. As I obsessively scrolled through my feed, I had two reactions. The first was the mélange of shock and frustration and sadness and fury and embarrassment that I saw reflected on my Twitter feed. The second was less anticipated, but no less deeply felt: that if ADA Alexandra Cabot from Law & Order: SVU had helmed the Zimmerman prosecution, she’d never have let this happen.
I’m not sure if my reaction to the Zimmerman verdict reflects the limitations of my familiarity with the criminal justice system, or the breadth of my knowledge of network TV crime procedurals. I am, however, 100 percent convinced that I was not wrong. The blonde, willowy Cabot (or, for that matter, her less blonde but equally willowy successor Casey Novak) would not have allowed for an acquittal. She would have exploited some obscure constitutional loophole, or sent detectives Munch and Finn to do some more legwork. In her capable, manicured hands, Trayvon Martin would’ve gotten justice.
It might sound frivolous to compare the Zimmerman trial to Law & Order: SVU because SVU is a work of fiction, and not a particularly good one at that. Now entering its fifteenth season this fall, SVU is renowned more for its pulpy entertainment value than its artistic quality: The storylines are flimsy and the acting Skinemax-caliber. Yet despite its numerous flaws and cast overhauls, including the departure of Elliot Stabler two years ago, the show is still hugely popular: according to an entry on Tv.com, it has been NBC’s highest-rated drama for the past three years.
Although the ardor for SVU is not specific to millennials, it enjoys a peculiar kind of cache among members of my generation. A BuzzFeed listicle entitled “Things Millennial Girls Love” lists Law & Order: SVU among such millennial-friendly cultural ephemera as Kristen Wiig, Snapchat selfies, and guacamole-flavored hummus (which sounds friggin’ repulsive, regardless of one’s demographic cohort). A recent marketing poll also indicated that 14 percent of millennials listed Law & Order: SVU as their favorite show, outranking newer, ostensibly more Gen Y-friendly fare like Breaking Bad, Modern Family,and Game of Thrones.
SVU’s continued popularity among those who were born at least two decades after Captain Cragen hit puberty begs an interesting question: In the age of Netflix and Hulu Plus and the well-made cable-television drama, it’s a bit curious that millennials still obsess over a formulaic network procedural. But we do. We love the gratuitous plot twists and the pithy one-liners; we love Stabler and Benson and Munch and the faces Ice-T pulls during interrogations (which are more or less variations on the expression one has while passing an exigent stool). We love binge-watching old episodes on Netflix, and we love rewatching those episodes when a marathon pegged on an obscure holiday, like the Jewish agricultural celebration Tu B’shevat, airs on USA. And we love that scene where Captain Cragen rescues a monkey from a basketball. Oh, God, do we love that scene where Captain Cragen rescues a monkey from a basketball.
While SVU is lurid and addictive and GIF-ready and all the other things millennials purportedly love, I think there’s another reason for our adoration. The truth is, outside the Law & Order universe, young people tend to hate the shit out of cops. The stereotype of long-haired, rebellious youths flipping off “pigs” of the sixties might sound time-worn, but there’s clearly something to it: An annual Gallup poll shows that 18-29 year-olds consistently trail behind older adults in reporting “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police. For us, the police force exists solely as a symbol of violence and racism and corruption, and news stories about NYPD rapists and stop-and-frisk and pepper-spraying Occupy Wall Street protesters do little to indicate otherwise.
Since I was old enough to realize that not all cops took the vow to serve and protect seriously, I have harbored a rather cynical view of law enforcement. This impression was not corrected by my one direct encounter with the police, when I was handcuffed by a guy who called me “princess” and sat in a squad car for three hours because I purchased a bottle of Mogen David kosher wine (don’t ask) two months before my twenty-first birthday. My friends who were arrested at anti-fracking protests and Occupy Wall Street demonstrations had similar experiences, and every time I heard about an officer sexually assaulting a 911 caller, or slut-shaming a rape victim, or shooting someone simply for the color of their skin and their choice of wardrobe, I thought about how much I hated cops, and how lucky I’d been to have escaped from my own interaction with them unscathed.
A few months before the Zimmerman verdict, I embarked on another SVU marathon. Even more than I loved watching Stabler and Benson eye-fuck each other and Ice-T strain to poop, I loved watching the criminal justice system work exactly the way it was supposed to. I loved seeing Benson counsel terrified sexual-assault victims, without shaming them or doubting their stories, or Cabot shoot down wealthy or well-connected defendants during cross-examination. I even loved the CSU technicians using their keen powers of observation to put the bad guys away for life. For me, Law & Order: SVU represents a bizarro universe where lawyers and cops and prosecutors work together, within the confines of a broken system, to ensure justice for everyone.
I think millennials love SVU because every day, we’re deluged with news stories about people who don’t work to ensure justice, who exploit the cracks within our broken system. As wired twenty-somethings, we use outlets like Twitter to share our collective outrage over these stories. But we also have another outlet for our disillusionment, and that’s Law & Order: SVU. And while justice for Trayvon and millions of others won’t come in the form of GIFs or Netflix or USA marathons, it’s nice to have a facsimile, however lurid and pornily acted, for what a world with justice might look like.
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