“Law and Order” as cultural history

I have recently begun the slightly odd project of watching Law and Order start to finish. Although I have watched the most recent several seasons of L&O, as well as the various spin-offs, the earlier 10-15 seasons really passed me by. I’m well aware that L&O is almost ubiquitous on US cable TV (I had a sick day in a US hotel where I watched nothing but), but in New Zealand, re-runs of earlier seasons have been fewer and further between. However, one of our PayTV networks recently started from season 1, episode 1, and seems to be intent on just running right through them. That, combined with a DVR, encouraged me to go back and experience the whole lot. A fool’s mission, maybe, but one I’m finding quite interesting.

What has struck me, 3-ish seasons in, is the way that L&O operates as an artefact, as a cultural historical record. Early seasons are filled with references to AIDS, to DNA, to mobile phones. Incident reports are being completed on type-writers, a foot cop runs to a pay-phone to call in a crime. Sexual harrassment seems to become a common trope as the series progresses. Females serving in the police force and the military becomes a theme. Homosexuality becomes more and more in the public eye, as does racism. I’m struck by the number of derogatory terms used in the show’s early seasons, especially n***er, which seems to be used in every second episode.

This is not the world’s greatest show. And as it is still a work of fiction, it answers more to the storyline than to culture. But I feel that the 20 years (running from roughly 1990-2010) saw massive shifts in technology and culture in the US, and L&O seems to be marking the importance of various issues as they come up. I expect to see more concerns around new technology, around the rise of the internet, around concerns of identity, around sexuality, race and gender, around politics and the rise of the religious right, around corruption, around terrorism. And I really feel that I am in some ways getting a glimpse back into the US’s cultural history, seeing the issues that were preoccupying people at a given moment, and seeing attitudes change and shift.

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