Why does SVU beat the other L&O’s in ratings?

Naturally, Law & Order and Law & Order: Criminal Intent are facing the possibility of cancellation while Law & Order: Special Victims Unit has already been renewed. Fans have started a petition to keep Criminal Intent on the air, but Dick Wolf seems more concerned about the old series.

I’ll state my bias up front just so you know. For me, the original series jumped the shark when they decided to create sleazy and trope-ridden romantic tension between two of the lawyers back in the mid-90’s, so cancel away. Criminal Intent, now that they’ve learned a little of Vincent D’onofrio’s character goes a long way, is pretty damn entertaining and occasionally does some groundbreaking stories for women and is now home to some very good female regulars and one of my favorite long-term characters from the franchise. SVU is… oye.

First, as Purtek said, SVU routinely shows professionals mishandling rape victims. It also presents false accusations and false memories as far more common than any estimate puts them in reality. And in general, the entire show is set up to be “using rape instead of addressing it” – a phrase I first saw from Angry Black Woman, which sums up neatly why 99% of TV rapes don’t work for people who care about rape as an issue, as something that shouldn’t be happening at all, as something we could prevent as a society if only we could get as many people on an anti-rape crusade as we can get on an abstinence crusade.

So why does it work just fine for audiences? Do audiences conflate rape with sex and therefore think they’re getting some free erotica? Or is it more complicated than that? Is it that rape is such an automatic melodrama that audiences unconsciously perceive rape cops as more heroic, complex and sympathetic than homicide cops? Perceive the victims as more… well, “special”? And what about the consistent positioning of women as victims? Even though SVU features female cops and judges and lawyers who are our allies against rape, it also parades across our screens a never-ending series of women who need rescuing and women who are beyond rescuing. Is there any good the show can do that would outweigh the damage it does by pandering to the idea that women are dependent on the good will of men, and when that good will is not forthcoming, all we can do is try to clean up the mess?

Comments

  1. Nialla says

    The simple difference between the two shows for me is I like the cast of SVU and the cast of CI makes me reach for the remote control. Never could stand a minute of D’onofrio, and even though I’ve heard they’d pulled that back a bit, I have no interest in giving it a try now. Bad first impressions and all that.

    As for things not being shown as being handled correctly, that’s a common problem with every show. SG-1 didn’t handle military issues as they should have. Same with House dramatizing medical issues that make no sense to those who understand doctor-speak.

    TV writing is all about creating “drama” by going the well-trodden path because it’s easy to write that way and it’s easier for the general audience to understand. Yes, it does get rather boring sometimes, but a decent group of actors can keep me watching anyway.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    Meloni has that “reach for the remote” effect on me, but I try to look beyond that in evaluating the relative merits and flaws of the shows. Creating drama and relying on abuse for melodrama are two different beasts to me.

  3. SunlessNick says

    And in general, the entire show is set up to be “using rape instead of addressing it” – a phrase I first saw from Angry Black Woman - BetaCandy

    Angry Black Woman has quite a skill at summary.

    The simple difference between the two shows for me is I like the cast of SVU and the cast of CI makes me reach for the remote control. - Nialla

    I’m the same. The SVU cast is my overall favourite from all the series. We’re several years behind you in these shows in the UK, and this “mitigation” of Lt Goren hasn’t happened yet (and unfortunately I react to him in a similar manner as I do to Horatio Caine).

    My biggest problem with SVU is that it tries to borrow a shtik from the original series, about having many cases be such as to make the cast disagree about them, morally or legally. In the case of the original, that could work, but SVU centres on crimes that don’t have any moral ambiguity – which means that one character or another is given the job of rape-apologising – which also seems dramatically out of character every damn time.

  4. Purtek says

    As for things not being shown as being handled correctly, that’s a common problem with every show.

    But there are some things not being handled correctly that I can’t put up with or excuse, good cast or no. Maybe misrepresenting medical conditions or procedures on TV leads to people asking their doctors questions they wouldn’t otherwise ask, but the medical drama tropes haven’t diminished our overall respect for doctors, and anyone who has any experience of the conditions in question (as a professional or a patient) likely finds the assumptions relatively easy to overcome or argue against among friends. (I’ve had this happen with conditions I’ve had, and my authority is never questioned)

    This is not the case when it comes to rape. Survivors are getting a barrage of culture messages of the SVU-variety, and people buy them. Police really do often treat women who report an assault horrendously, including questioning their stories, but I inevitably have a long argument on my hands if I want to point out that reporting is not always the best option, nor is it the woman’s social responsibility to do so. The women-as-victims schtick reinforces ideas about how a rape victim is “supposed” to behave, which has an impact on real world legal cases, and my citing counterexamples does little to change others’ minds. People constantly parrot the idea that rape is often falsely reported, but SVU, while doing nothing to counter that, shows us false rape stories all the time.

    It’s one thing if we’re talking about a suspension of disbelief of the way the world works vs. the way TV presents it, but in this case, it’s reinforcing what people think is real, and that crosses way over my tolerance line. This is me, co-signing Betacandy’s petition to get the damn thing off the air, because no, I don’t think the damage can be counterbalanced.

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    I realize in hindsight my title was potentially inflammatory – I apologize if I offended anyone. I don’t believe in judging people for what they watch, no matter what I think of the show.

    Rape is most definitely something I can’t watch just because the cast is good. Sex abuse itself becomes a character to me in a story like that.

  6. Purtek says

    Yeah, I apologize too, because I know my comment is probably even more inclined to be judgmental and dismissive of viewers. I’ve just seriously got my ire on today.

    Sex abuse itself becomes a character to me in a story like that.

    Another nice concise summary of the problem, thank you.

  7. Jennifer Kesler says

    Purtek, I don’t think you said anything unfair. I just realized my title sounds like, “My show’s better than your show, why do you watch it?”

    I am raising the question of whether people are truly comfortable with a show that uses rape without addressing it, or if they’ve been conditioned to be comfortable with it. Which is confrontational enough. I should’ve used a less accusatory title.

  8. Nialla says

    BetaCandy wrote:

    Meloni has that “reach for the remote” effect on me, but I try to look beyond that in evaluating the relative merits and flaws of the shows. Creating drama and relying on abuse for melodrama are two different beasts to me.

    Meloni is one of the main reasons I watch, though SVU is one of a handful of shows where I like the entire cast, even the secondary and recurring characters.

    I just don’t see that solving horrific murder cases is any “better” than solving horrific rape cases in the creating melodrama department.

    SunLess Nick wrote:

    (and unfortunately I react to him in a similar manner as I do to Horatio Caine).

    Yes, I have exactly the same reaction to Caine. Can’t watch CSI:NY as a result, though I have watched some to see actors I like in a guest starring role.

    Purtek wrote:

    People constantly parrot the idea that rape is often falsely reported, but SVU, while doing nothing to counter that, shows us false rape stories all the time.

    Actually, there have been several stories that have countered the idea of false rapes being a common thing, often in the form of dealing with beat cops who don’t follow through with a case because they feel it’s a false claim, instead of letting the system handle it as it should.

    This is me, co-signing Betacandy’s petition to get the damn thing off the air, because no, I don’t think the damage can be counterbalanced.

    I really loathe any form of “I don’t like XYZ show, so take it off the air.” It’s your choice not to watch, just as it’s mine (and quite a few others, judging by the ratings) to watch. If you have issues with the show, take it up with the writers.

    BetaCandy wrote:

    Rape is most definitely something I can’t watch just because the cast is good. Sex abuse itself becomes a character to me in a story like that.

    I’m not sure where the idea that SVU’s about nothing but rape cases is coming from. It’s not, though I guess if you’re not a regular viewer, it might seem that way.

    I just realized my title sounds like, “My show’s better than your show, why do you watch it?”

    Yes, it really does.

    I think maybe your case could be better made by citing specific examples and discussing them instead of just a generic “the show mishandles rape and viewers must be stupid to watch it” tone.

    BTW, all of the L&O franchise shows were renewed as of today. SVU wasn’t at risk because it’s the highest rated of the three. It had nothing to do with the wishes of TPTB, it was all about the ratings (and cost to get them) as usual.

    L&O will continue on NBC, but I think it’s almost like SG-1 continuing under the same name after being retooled into practically a new show — they’re aiming for a record. In L&O’s case, it’s the 20 year mark which would tie the record set by Gunsmoke.

    For CI’s continuation, it will air on USA. It’s not clear if or when they’ll air on NBC, though one theory is they’ll use it to plug any scheduling holes if a new series falters.

  9. Purtek says

    OK, first, I was a regular viewer of SVU for a long time, and I’ve seen some of the “mistaken dismissals” cases. You’re right, it’s something, but I don’t think it’s enough given the quantity of counter-examples featuring stories of false claims (there was even an episode vilifying a psychologist for creating “false memories”, when the evidence on that is…limited, to say the least, which was not addressed in the show). It also seems to present it as a problem with individual cops, not touching the bigger system that encourages the belief. That doesn’t allay the rest of my multiple objections to the show, either.

    I really loathe any form of “I don’t like XYZ show, so take it off the air.” It’s your choice not to watch, just as it’s mine (and quite a few others, judging by the ratings) to watch. If you have issues with the show, take it up with the writers.

    I probably equally loathe the “appeal to the market” argument. First, what makes you think I haven’t written several letters to the writers and producers of L&O? That they’ve been ignored should probably go without saying. Second–and before I say this, I want to be clear that I am *not* saying these are morally equivalent, or equating you and other SVU viewers with these other consumers–the idea that if it sells, it must be okay has limits, as demonstrated by the Don Imus kerfuffle. I get that you’re feeling kind of defensive, and don’t want to make you more so, but the point remains that I *don’t* have to shut up about what I consider offensive or refrain from requesting that it be altered/taken off the air because I think its messages are harmful just because if it’s out there, people will buy it.

    There is a huge struggle over the way sexual violence is perceived in society that perpetuates its occurrence and leads to survivors being treated poorly socially and legally, which hinders recovery. When I see a popular show adding to that, I won’t just change the channel and call that good enough; I think sites like this are an important part of getting out messages that counter the dominant attitude. (But also, I don’t think you’re dumb for watching it; I’m probably even more harsh with the shows I love most (like Veronica Mars and Heroes) and won’t stop watching despite their glaring flaws.)

  10. Jennifer Kesler says

    First, I’ve changed the title of this post. Not to cover up that I screwed up, but to reinforce my apology.

    I just don’t see that solving horrific murder cases is any “better” than solving horrific rape cases in the creating melodrama department.

    It’s different because both acts (murder and rape) are wrong, but one leads to something that’s inevitable in every life (death) and the other leads to something that is not inevitable (torture), but is all too often accepted as such.

    This is an extremely important differentiation to me, because the acceptance of rape as something women should just cope with is, IMO, a big cultural contribution to keeping rape culture alive.

    I really loathe any form of “I don’t like XYZ show, so take it off the air.”

    I never suggested taking it off the air – I think Purtek was engaging in hyperbole there. I just asked why audiences prefer this show to the others, and raised the question of whether “rape is such an automatic melodrama that audiences unconsciously perceive rape cops as more heroic, complex and sympathetic than homicide cops?” From that question, it can also be inferred that I expected the response, “We like the cast better.” I’m just wondering if anyone is willing to examine how much of that is truly actor preference, and how much might be influenced by the sort of crimes the characters are solving.

    I’m aware of the renewals: Criminal Intent’s new eps will air on USA then a couple of weeks later on NBC according to TV Guide’s article – exactly the reverse of how it’s being done now.

    I’m not sure where the idea that SVU’s about nothing but rape cases is coming from.

    I’ve seen probably 30 eps over the years, and all of them dealt with rapes of women and children, save one which dealt with a celebrity’s child who had attachment disorder. I never said it was “nothing but rape”: my argument is simply that there’s more than enough to bolster cultural views about rape as inevitable.

    I think maybe your case could be better made by citing specific examples and discussing them instead of just a generic “the show mishandles rape and viewers must be stupid to watch it” tone.

    And for the tone that came off as accusing people of being stupid, I apologized and apologize again.

    I did actually watch most of an ep today (until my DirectTV decided to reset at the end) to see if I could come up with examples. That said, I’m not sure examples will help in this case because that discussion’s been had at other sites about SVU and BSG. To some people, it’s self-evident that these are reasonable rape stories. To others it’s self-evident that they’re ill-advised at best.

    What I’m not seeing are arguments as to how these shows are handling rape well, which suggests to me that some people find it perfectly acceptable as a plot device, and on that point I guess we have to agree to disagree. I’ve certainly been told enough times I’m “oversensitive” and “prudish” for disliking rape plots and scenes in general, and in my own view neither of those terms even apply, so I’m not sure there’s much room for common ground here.

    Again, I apologize for the antagonistic title. And I’ll try to squeeze in some eps so I can come up with examples, so we can give that discussion a shot.

  11. Nialla says

    Purtek wrote:

    First, what makes you think I haven’t written several letters to the writers and producers of L&O?

    Honestly, I don’t care if you have or not. It’s your right to do so, just as it’s my right to do so for any show that disturbs me. Though I usually just go the route of changing the channel.

    I get that you’re feeling kind of defensive, and don’t want to make you more so, but the point remains that I *don’t* have to shut up about what I consider offensive or refrain from requesting that it be altered/taken off the air because I think its messages are harmful just because if it’s out there, people will buy it.

    I’m not feeling defensive, I just think the original post and your followup were a little on the offensive side — as in attacking, not as in personally offensive to me. But hey, controversy gets people talking.

    BetaCandy wrote:

    It’s different because both acts (murder and rape) are wrong, but one leads to something that’s inevitable in every life (death) and the other leads to something that is not inevitable (torture), but is all too often accepted as such.

    That doesn’t quite compute for me, as while death is inevitable, being murdered is not. And in many cases, the murder victims are also tortured. Just because they’re dead and no longer suffering doesn’t lessen that impact for me.

    I’m just wondering if anyone is willing to examine how much of that is truly actor preference, and how much might be influenced by the sort of crimes the characters are solving.

    In my case it is. Same for my mother. We’ve both talked about how odd it is that we no longer watch L&O, couldn’t stand CI from day one, but still watch SVU because of the actors. Even if it wasn’t SVU in the literal sense — if the focus was on solving “regular” murders — I’d still prefer the SVU cast. I just plain don’t care for the casts of the other two shows, even though I did watch the original for a time. I stopped watching it long before I started watching SVU.

  12. Jennifer Kesler says

    That doesn’t quite compute for me, as while death is inevitable, being murdered is not. And in many cases, the murder victims are also tortured. Just because they’re dead and no longer suffering doesn’t lessen that impact for me.

    That’s not what I’m saying either. I’m saying that death comes, with or without your consent. Sex acts are not supposed to happen without your consent. The inevitability of death makes it more acceptable to me as a plot device: conversely, when rape is used as a plot device, the message I get is that rape is as inevitable as death.

    This comes in part from a number of conversations I’ve had in which people were trying to convince me that rape was just inevitable, and that sometimes rapists don’t realize what they’re doing is rape and we should cut them slack in court (as opposed to educating kids from a reasonably early age what “consent” is and isn’t). In a disturbing number of these conversations, movies and TV shows have been cited as evidence for why I should shut up about rape and just learn to live with it.

    Now, the shows absolutely are not responsible for what people attempt to do with their content. Yes, some people are going to find that rationalization somewhere, no matter how unavailable pop culture makes it. But:

    The original series had a spotty record on rape: some damn good episodes and some rather poor ones. When they decided to do a sex crimes spin-off, I was hopeful that they’d put the people behind their “damn good” rape episodes on it. When I started watching it in the first season (I think?), I concluded it was just as spotty as the original series, only it was constant instead of 1-2 rape episodes per season. This left me with the sense that maybe this just wasn’t the correct franchise to attempt SVU, and I wished they’d gone another direction with their franchise expansion.

  13. MaggieCat says

    I’m just wondering if anyone is willing to examine how much of that is truly actor preference, and how much might be influenced by the sort of crimes the characters are solving.

    For whatever it’s worth, I watched pretty much every episode of SVU for at least the first 4 seasons or so- I happen to be huge fan of both Christopher Meloni and Richard Belzer, love BD Wong, had missed Dann Florek ever since he left L&O Original, and although I’d never seen her in anything other than ER I liked Mariska Hargitay as well- basically I just loved the entire cast. (If only they’d kept Dean Winters for more than 13 episodes. *sigh*)

    It was the content of the show that eventually drove me to quit watching, even though I still like all of the actors involved. There just came a point at which it was both too much; which weirdly coincided with the point where I realized I couldn’t really muster up quite the same amount of horror that it had caused in the earlier seasons because I’d seen it all too often. The show’s cases were becoming more and more sensationalized (in my opinion) but I was getting less and less surprised at the graphic things they were using as plot points. That horrified me, and that’s when I stopped watching.

  14. SunlessNick says

    I’m just wondering if anyone is willing to examine how much of that is truly actor preference, and how much might be influenced by the sort of crimes the characters are solving.

    I admit that that’s a question worth asking myself, but I think it is the cast, because like MaggieCat I’m burned out on the content of the show, and don’t watch it much. But if the SVU cast was transferred over to a caseload similar to the other two, I’d still prefer to watch them overall.

    (Though I’d rather have Van Buren as the boss)

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