‘Law & Order: SVU’ Premiere Sees Olivia Benson Realize She’s a Racist
What will the beloved, long-running police procedural become as it reimagines itself in the wake of protests against police brutality?
Longtime Law & Order: Special Victims Unit fans likely had an inkling of what to expect when they tuned in for its Season 22 premiere Thursday night. After all, how could a show known for its ripped-from-the-headlines zeal resist the dystopian cornucopia of 2020’s news cycle?
Within its first five minutes, the premiere episode, “Guardians and Gladiators,” tackled “Central Park Karen” Amy Cooper, who called police on a Black bird-watcher in Manhattan; the protests against police brutality that emerged after the murder of George Floyd; and, of course, the novel coronavirus pandemic. And things only got busier from there.
As overstuffed as the premiere could feel at times, it also set up the season’s broader arc. After our Cooper stand-in, Colleen Reynolds, calls the NYPD on a Black man named Jayvon Brown for exercising near her and “scaring her son,” Olivia and Fin appear on the scene. They soon find an injured man in a coma, and apprehend Jayvon after noticing that he has two outstanding warrants. But those were for protests, and it doesn’t take long for Jayvon to prove his innocence when it comes to beating the man found unconscious, Eric. Oh—and Benson, as it turned out, stopped-and-frisked him the year before for a crime he did not commit.
While police scramble to find whoever actually hurt Eric, the other shoe drops: Jayvon sues the NYPD, Olivia, and Fin.
This summer’s Black Lives Matter protests sparked discussion about how police procedurals like Law & Order and their ilk have, for decades now, painted police as heroes. A recent study demonstrated that these series give the American public a skewed vision of the criminal justice system. They often paint cops who break the rules as rogue heroes doing what they know is right—think Golden Age Elliot Stabler—when in reality police misconduct has had deadly consequences for far too many.
Most of these series have returned or soon will this fall—and the question of how they’ll address their own complicity in this system has lingered. SVU is clearly committed to meeting the challenge head-on, primarily through its central hero Olivia Benson.
At first, the premiere finds both Benson and her colleagues insisting that she could never, ever be racist. Fin’s testimonial: “I’ve worked with Captain Benson for over 20 years. Her only bias is for the victim.” But by the end, even Benson has to wonder.
The premiere also left space for Fin to explore his own qualms about being a Black police officer. As Jayvon tells him, “I expect this nonsense from her. But doesn’t this get old for you, man?” And Fin, too, is skeptical of some of his colleagues’ biases. (“You can take the cop out of Staten Island...”) In a conversation with Christian Garland about the tumult ahead, the Deputy Chief warns Fin that there’s a “purge” coming in the department—and that no one is safe.
It’s clear that SVU’s writers and producers take their mandate seriously this season—and for the most part, “Guardians and Gladiators” is a fascinating look at how these shows might slowly re-imagine their roles. Still, this process is not going to be easy or seamless.
SVU might’ve shifted its vantage point, but we’re still living in the same fictionalized world with the same fictional characters. We’ve known some of these characters for decades, and for all that time they have, more or less, been treated as heroes—their actions justified, their mistakes minimized, their misjudgments forgiven after generally gentle scrutiny.
Benson, Fin, and their crew are no more or less broadly representative of actual police now than they were a few years ago—but we, too, now see them in a different light. As the future continues to take shape, both on screen and in real life, it’s unclear what SVU will ultimately look like.
Still, this is a fascinating first step—particularly because save for a couple questionable moments, SVU has done a good job of refusing to let its officers off the hook so far. Jayvon is rightfully angry at the police, and the show makes clear that his anger is justified. And when Olivia tells him he has a right to be furious with her, he shoots back, “Don’t tell me I have a right to my anger. I already know that.”
During her interview with the Internal Affairs Bureau, Benson’s interviewer tells her that in her experience, there are two kinds of police officers: Gladiators and Guardians. The Gladiators? Well, we saw them in real life at the protests all summer. The Guardians, however, are their own breed: “[They] never see themselves as racist but are in denial about their complicity in the systemic racism of the NYPD.”
It’s a little frustrating to see Benson rendered this naive—but then again, maybe that’s the point. “How much did that bias affect my choices?” Olivia wonders aloud. “Affect my decisions as a cop? I’m reeling.”
That said, one moment in the premiere did stick out: At a grand jury hearing for the actual perp, Fin faces a barrage of questions about Jayvon’s arrest. When he says the arrest fell under standard police procedure, he faces a damning reply: “Police procedure? The same procedure you used when you shot that boy’s father, another Black man in the projects?” And then the actual perpetrator, a white man who looks like the most “Chad” Chad to ever Chad—popped collar and all!—convinces the jury that he, too, has been abused by the police. “We’re all victims here,” he says. “Eric, Jayvon, and me.”
As the jury nods along, completely duped, it all feels a little forced—especially when it’s followed up by Carisi grousing, “They’re so mad at the NYPD right now, they wanna punish us.” (That would be when the “take the cop out of Staten Island” comment happened.)
Above all, “Guardians and Gladiators” seems to be setting up a season that will prize earnest exploration above all else. Benson and her team might be investigating the same kinds of crimes they always have, but some of us are now watching them in a way we hadn’t before. If this premiere is any indication, the season to come will be a fascinating one—worth watching, if nothing else to see how this news-processing machine handles one of the craziest news years in living memory.
At the end of the episode, Olivia Benson tells Jayvon that the DA is pursuing charges against Colleen Reynolds for the phony report. But as Jayvon tells her, he’s already lost his job due to the arrest and the real perpetrator in the crime walked—so who really cares? Benson begins to tell him that the NYPD has a lot of work to do before correcting herself: “I have a lot of work to do.”
“Yeah,” he tells her. “You do.” It’s time for the Guardian angel to come back to Earth.