Ally's Blog

Posts Tagged ‘Dick Wolf

I became very intrigued by a particular TV series during high school, only to find out that many of my peers in college would also be mildly obsessed with this crime drama.

Click to watch the opening credits.

I am an avid “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” viewer.  Sadly, I know when the marathons are on the USA Network – Tuesdays, and sometimes Sundays, if you are interested.

Produced by Dick Wolf, SVU has been airing on NBC since 1999 and reruns have been picked up by many other networks.  The show has been categorized into the drama, crime, and mystery genres on the Internet Movie Database, IMDb.  This TV “show introduces the Special Victims Unit, a new elite squad of NYPD detectives who investigate sexually related crimes.”

Detectives Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler are the main characters.  Olivia is known for being great with kids, although she doesn’t have any of her own.  Elliot has a temper problem and he loses self control when children are the victims.  There is a lot of sexual tension between the two but it has never been played out on camera.

Olivia and Elliot work tightly with Detectives Fin Tutuola and John Munch, along with their Captain, Donald Cragen.  The crimes could never be solved without the help of medical examiner, Dr. Melinda Warner and psychologist, Dr. George Huang.  And the cases could never be closed without the expertise of the A.D.A., who has changed multiple times throughout the series.

I think it would be best to critique SVU through the use of narrative criticism, the “systematic study of texts and how they are structured into a cause and effect chain of events with a beginning, middle, and end.”

John Fiske’s article, “The Codes of Television,” and Vladimir Propp’s eight roles of action will be helpful in analyzing SVU.

First, Fiske defines three levels which encode television texts. Level one, reality, is encoded by social codes such as appearance, environment, and behavior.  Level two, representation, is encoded by technical codes such as camera work, lighting, and music.  Then, the codes from level two transmit the conventional representational codes, which are used to express conflict and dialogue.  Lastly, level three, ideology, is decoded by ideological codes such as race, class, and materialism.

More simply, everything during a TV show is done purposely to confirm the social rules or conventions of the viewers.  For example, what the viewer thinks detectives should look like, how criminals should act, or the layout of a police station.

Fiske said in his article, “Codes are links between producers, texts, and audiences, and are the agents of intertextuality through which texts interrelate in a network of meanings that constitutes our cultural world”

To decipher the codes used in SVU viewers must pay attention to how the characters are dressed, how their make-up is done, and their gestures. The detectives are normally put together and dressed nicely, while the criminals are normally ratty-looking and their make-up makes them look dirty or disheveled.

The camera angle, lighting, and background music during a scene all add to the mood, but also shape the viewers perceptions of the show and the characters.  The music is dark and heavy in the beginning of the show and while the crime unfolds but the music and sound effects are lighter and more upbeat when the case is solved or the victims are at peace with their situation.

On a sound side note, while growing up my mom would always tell me to turn the channel when any “Law and Order” introduction began to play.  I later associated the “dun-dun” sound at the end of the intro with something that was bad.

The setting and the narrative, or the way the story is told and unfolds, are decoded by viewers and can place the show into a specific genre.

Lastly, the ideological codes may be harder for viewers to decode.  Things like race, class, patriarchy, and individualism can be subtle.  There have been many episodes where patriarchy plays a huge factor, as the male criminal felt powerless, therefore hurt or even killed someone to regain him dominance.

Using Propp’s eight roles of action, viewers can identify the role and purpose of each character in the text.  The eight roles include: the villain, the hero, the donor, the helper, the princess, her father, the dispatcher, and the false or anti-hero.

In my opinion the characters in SVU represent about six of the roles.  For those who know the characters well, I think most would agree with my selections.  The villains would be the criminals, also known as the “perps.”  The heroes would be all involved in solving the crimes, but more specifically Olivia and Elliot.  The donors would be Dr. Huang, Dr. Warner, and the A.D.A.  The helpers would be Fin, Munch, and Captain Cragen, who also plays another role as the dispatcher.  Lastly, the princesses would be the victims.

So now you are probably asking “so what, why can’t I just watch the show for what it is?”  I believe it is important for viewers to critically examine media texts, especially crime dramas such as SVU, because we need to remember that it is just that, a TV show.  Yes, the things that happen on the show happen in real life, but a lot is added.

While writing this, my family was watching Disney Pixar’s “The Incredibles.”  At the perfect moment, the mother said to her children, “Remember the bad guys on the shows you used to watch on Saturday mornings?  Well, these guys aren’t like those guys.  They won’t exercise restraint because you are children.  They will kill you if they get the chance.  Do not give them that chance.”

All forms of media have an impact on their audience but hopefully viewers are able to decipher between TV and the real world and not be too influenced by a show.  We can’t all walk around thinking we are detectives and try to save the world, one “perp” at a time.


July 2018
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