NBC Announcement Of 'Law & Order: Hate Crimes' Sparks Online Debate

Sep 7, 2018
Originally published on September 7, 2018 8:58 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Sometime next year, TV viewers may hear this sound in a new spin-off of a familiar show.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRAMATIC CLANG)

SHAPIRO: NBC has announced that it's picked up a new series, "Law & Order: Hate Crimes." This follows other versions of the show including, most recently, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," which focuses on sexual assault cases. Many people online reacted to this news with a wince, asking whether violence against marginalized groups should really be the subject of mass entertainment. Here to discuss the issue is NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Hi, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.

SHAPIRO: What do we know about this new "Law & Order: Hate Crimes"?

DEGGANS: So it would be the latest iteration of the "Law & Order" franchise, which is almost 30 years old on NBC now. And it's inspired by an actual hate crimes task force inside the New York City Police Department. I saw an interesting study from California State University, San Bernardino that said that there was an increase in hate crimes in America's 10 largest cities four years in a row. So it kind of feels like this is a subject that's very topical. And it might make sense for them to take a look at it now.

SHAPIRO: Topical, timely and also controversial. Explain why it has so many people upset.

DEGGANS: Well, the concern I've seen online has come from people who are worried that the series is just going to be this cavalcade of stories about people of color and people from marginalized groups getting victimized. And other people are just concerned that a commercial network TV show might not be able to handle the complexities of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, all of these hot-button issues that are surely going to come up. But we should bear in mind there isn't a script. There isn't a pilot episode created. So we're talking about a show that doesn't really exist yet.

SHAPIRO: You know, "Law & Order: SVU" has been turning stories of rape and sexual assault into mass entertainment for just about 20 years now. Is it a double standard to say that's fine, but a show about hate crimes is not?

DEGGANS: Well, I think NBC would dispute that "SVU" is making stories about making rape entertaining. They're trying to tell stories about how the criminal justice system treats sex crimes. And I think it's worth looking at "SVU" as an example of how this "Hate Crimes" show might work because "Special Victims Unit" I think has presented these really compelling conversations about what constitutes sexual assault, how it affects survivors, how the criminal justice system struggles to prosecute these cases. And, you know, it's educated viewers in a way. Here's a clip of SVU star Mariska Hargitay as Police Lieutenant Olivia Benson speaking to a victim.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT")

MARISKA HARGITAY: (As Olivia Benson) I know that you feel like you've made your peace with this. But like I said, you need to tell the jury what Mickey did to you.

SARAH BOOTH: (As Beth Williams) What I let him do to me.

HARGITAY: (As Olivia Benson) None of this is on you - none of it.

DEGGANS: So you can hear that there, a sense of how hard it is for police to deal with these victims. Now, it can still be tough to watch a succession of people assaulted in different ways every week without looking exploitive. And I think that's the concern about what might happen during this "Hate Crimes" series as well.

SHAPIRO: This is the first new "Law & Order" spinoff in a long time. And right now America's in the middle of this big debate about policing and how it affects people of color. Do you think this kind of show is helping the conversation about systemic problems in law enforcement and policing?

DEGGANS: That's a challenge. You know, early seasons of "Law & Order" focused on how unfair the system was. We saw rich people escaping justice even when they were guilty. But I think they've changed that in recent years to make the show more entertaining. And the debate that we're having now about policing suggests that maybe these systemic issues are purposefully unfair to people of color and poor people, which is a little more difficult concept for shows like "Law & order" to kind of approach and still be entertaining. You know, I've seen some studies that indicate that maybe they overrepresent black people as criminals and victims and underrepresent women. So, you know, I know the new "Law & Order" show's going to focus on exploring issues of race and culture. I just hope they do it in an authentic way.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Thanks, Eric.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.