There was a time in my callow, naive youth when I’d see a show like Law & Order (or Dragnet — I watched that as a kid) and think it was an accurate portrayal of how the police worked. Then I’d see the news about, for instance, Rodney King or George Floyd, or all those untested rape kits (11,000 in Detroit!) and the disjoint between the reported reality and the television fantasy began to pile up. The TV tells me the police will deliver justice if I’m ever wronged, but the news is telling me it’s more likely they’d deliver pepper spray and a nightstick, and then ignore me afterwards.

I’m happy to see John Oliver delivering the truth. Law & Order is a lie.

That show really needs a disclaimer at the beginning and end of each episode stating, “This show is a fantasy about how we wish the justice system operated. There is nothing real about how the law works portrayed here.” Maybe bracket it with genuine statistics about case clearance rates and incidents of corruption and unjustified violence.


  1. Jemolk says

    Yeah, but if they did that, the cops that they get a bunch of help and resources from would stop having anything to do with them.

    …Never seems to occur to the people running the shows that this is a clear indication of a deep problem, or if it does, they don’t let it stop them. Letting a show’s subjects basically bribe/blackmail their way to having unrealistically positive portrayals needs to end. As does the uncritical veneration of existing systems, just because they’re existing systems.

  2. Dunc says

    @Jemolk, @ #1: What do you imagine the people running these shows think their purpose is, that would cause them to see this as a problem? They’re not the news, and even the news is only interested in eyeballs (“it’s just like the show before / and the news is just another show / with sex and violence”). Nobody in the media is in the business of informing or educating people (with the possible exception of David Attenborough).

  3. Alverant says

    I started watching L&O so I’d have something to talk about with my mother since she loved it too. It turned out she lost interest after Jerry Orbach died but I kept with it through the end and went to SVU for a while. It’s when the cops started acting like real cops (harassing people they think are guilty, brutality, etc) that I gave up. I liked the fantasy of cops protecting the public and DAs who would follow ethics rules and drop charges when they realized they were wrong.

    But then the reality of how cops really act came crashing down and I had no interest in returning to the series. (Of course, since I cut cable in 2016 there’s no way for me to watch it anyway.)

  4. christoph says

    I found Dragnet to be insulting to my intelligence. They always portrayed anyone who wasn’t a cop as naïve or stupid.

  5. robro says

    PZ Myers OP & @ #5 — I thought Oliver went to great pains to emphasize, repeatedly, that television police dramas and legal procedurals are not reality. It’s not surprising the many viewers don’t know that, but what is more than a little shocking is that the police are using these shows as a model. The opportunity for a negative feedback loop is just too great, particularly around the brutality embodied in the good cop vs bad cop scenario. The use of physical and psychological abuse to push suspects to confess is probably related to the number of convictions that are later appealed and overturned.

    Re cowboys: Just to show how things change, I’ve read more than once that in the mid-19 century American West, “cowboy” was essentially a curse meaning an uncivilized ruffian. The Claiborne/Clanton/McLaury gang in Tombstone, Arizona territory were considered cowboys. So not always “good guys”, just since Hollywood got hold of it.

  6. robro says

    Rob Grigjanis @ #4 — And starring Erroll Flynn!? I forget, does Lord Cardigan, he of the sweeter, or Lord Ragland, he of the sleeve, make an appearance in that film? It’s to be noted that as far as I recall the film does not mention the other great moment in the Battle of Balaclava when the 93rd Highlanders stopped a Russian charge which became known as the “Thin Red Line”…dubbed so by a journalist I believe.

    Actually, there’s a connection between the Crimean War and the notion of vérité in modern television journalism and drama. It’s often counted as the first war covered by journalists in the field whose dispatches contributed to the mythology of Alma and Balaclava. I believe Tennyson read about the battle in a news article.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    robro @9: No Cardigan, Lucan, Raglan, or Captain Nolan in that movie. No need for them, since Flynn’s character is the sole, totally fictitious architect of the charge. No time for the other great moments either; Scarlett’s Charge of the Heavy Brigade, and the Thin Red Line.

    The 1968 film is a much more accurate representation.

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    robro @ # 8: … in the mid-19 century American West, “cowboy” was essentially a curse meaning an uncivilized ruffian.

    The earliest use of that word I’ve found comes from the American Revolution:

    In the north of British-occupied New York was what was known as the Neutral Ground – a twenty-mile-wide swath of territory along the Hudson River where gangs of patriots and loyalists, known as skinners and Cowboys, respectively, turned Westchester County into a lawless wasteland.

    Bands of lawless gangs – Skinners if they considered themselves patriots, Cowboys if they were loyalists – regularly plundered homes and farms until virtually all of Westchester County had been reduced to a haunted wasteland. After five years of war, many, if not most, residents had fled to Connecticut to the east or toward Peekskill to the north. Those who insisted on remaining in their homes had been stripped of almost all human dignity by the bandits’ unceasing depredations.

    – Nathaniel Philbrick, Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution, pp 237, 297

  9. says

    The only account of the Light Brigade that I find plausible is the one by George Macdonald Fraser, featuring Flashman. It was a collection of cowards, scoundrels, and opportunists sent out to die by an idiot.

  10. Jake Wildstrom says

    The TV tells me the police will deliver justice if I’m ever wronged, but the news is telling me it’s more likely they’d deliver pepper spray and a nightstick, and then ignore me afterwards.

    Eh, you’re white and within conventional bounds in appearance and behavior, so probably not so much with the brutality (unless they’re in a bad mood), but yes on the ignoring your case.

  11. Larry says

    Eh, you’re white and within conventional bounds in appearance and behavior, so probably not so much with the brutality (unless they’re in a bad mood), but yes on the ignoring your case.

    Brutality if you’re dark-skinned and lucky. Murdered by choking or bullet, if not.

  12. timmyson says

    Cowboys were also all good guys.

    Duh, of course not. The ones with the black hats were bad.

    But seriously, I saw an article about Diane Neal admitting and apologizing for propping up that fiction. That was a heartwarming part of the story for me.

  13. bcw bcw says

    The only positive thing about “Law and Order” is that it isn’t as sadistic and cruel as “24,” where the theme of every show was “we need to break those stupid rules on police conduct and torture this guy so we can find and defuse the bomb in the preschool.”

    I really think “24” was influential on normalizing the torture at Guantanamo.

  14. Wounded King says

    The YouTube channel Skip Into has a very good in depth look at copaganda over the years from Dragnet and Naked City, to the Wire, Blue Bloods, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

  15. Ian R says

    In the criminal “justice” system, the people are represented by two separate, but equally important groups: the police, who frame people for crimes; and the district attorneys, who coerce guilty pleas from the innocent.

    Dun Dun

  16. says

    I can’t stand those police procedurals because they are all BULLSHIT. My last go round with them involved a stalker who was threatening my life. What did the PPB do? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. I had to do all the work. Thank god one of them tried to buy a gun in California and turned up a warrant. Yeah I had two. He was the one trying to hack my cell phone account. He wanted to kill me. But it took a vigilant gun shop owner in California, NOT THE COPS to catch that one. The other one, well she’s still out there.

  17. bcw bcw says

    @18 Actually looking at the clips Oliver put up, I think the SVU version of the show looks like it has resurrected the “24” tropes. I haven’t watched L&O in many years.

  18. chrislawson says

    I used to watch L&O a long time ago. It was always a show about (generally) good cops and DAs, but in the earlier seasons it grappled with real and important legal issues and the DA lost the case in around half the episodes. Then it all changed, and instead of being about difficult points of law became about the clever ways the DAs could get around them. The conviction rate went up to about 95%. And I just lost interest because it became pretty much full-on cop/DA fanservice. Looking back, it was one of many shows that steadfastly refused to grapple with the flaws in law enforcement and this blind spot has become increasingly horrifying given the steady stream of incidents of police abuse and, worse, the absolute refusal of police, DAs, and mayors to make meaningful cultural changes.

    Wounded King@19–
    Agree with everything except The Wire being copaganda — the whole premise of the show is that institutions like the police make it structurally impossible for officers to do their job professionally. There are a few characters in the show who are capable, honest cops with integrity, and they end up demoralised, demoted, sidelined, sacked, and/or drinking themselves to death while the incompetent and corrupt get fast-tracked to senior positions. As for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, while it depicts an unrealistically competent and ethical police team, many of their recurring enemies and comic foils are other police, and many of their recurring plotlines have been about corruption, sexism, racism, and homophobia in the force — and I think the show deserves huge credit for literally cancelling itself as a protest against police violence.

  19. says

    @#13, Jake Wildstrom:

    That’s no longer a guarantee. As they become more and more overtly fascist cops are starting to kill and beat up white people without cause, too, because they know people will excuse them for it and the legal system won’t hold them responsible. Look at John Albers: lily-white teenaged boy, shot dead on video for no good reason and the cop who did it got a 5-figure bonus. Good thing the Democrats are cutting their funding, right? I mean, it’s not like major cities are literally being bankrupted to pay for their trigger-happy, out-of-control police. Oh, wait, no, Biden is proposing an extra $12.8 billion over the next four years to supplement new police pay via the DHS COPS hiring program, an increase in program funding of 1630%. I’m sure that giving them more money after they kill lots of people with impunity will make them stop killing people with impunity!

  20. chrislawson says


    Yes, supporters of fascism never seem to understand that fascist leaders need a constant supply of internal enemies and an oppressable underclass, and nobody has any protection unless they are in the very inner sanctum. One day you’re a brownshirt loyal to Hitler and the Nazi Party, next day you’ve had your throat slit by the SS. The brownshirts, needless to say, were mostly working class while the SS were mostly middle and upper class.

  21. flange says

    I’ve watched the whole original L & O series. There were some inventive plots, some outstanding acting—seeing Allison Janney for the first time was a revelation. I frequently enjoyed it. But at no time did I mistake L & O for depicting reality. I’ve known about cops and lawyers since I was a kid.
    I also watched the original “Dragnet” as a kid. It irritated me. Left-wingers and criminals (this was before “hippies”) were depicted as aggressive dullards. “What about my rights?” would elicit an outraged, sarcastic speech by Joe Friday. Jack Webb was an unabashed fan of the LAPD. And a right-winger, I think.