What Would Elliot and Olivia Do?

My name is The Chair and I am a Law and Order addict.   And my particular drug of choice is Elliot and Olivia.

So clearly I was in heaven this week. 

Me all week

For two hours I got to see the reunion of two of my favorite TV characters, the above detectives played by Chris Meloni and Mariska Hargitay, on L and O: Special Victims Unit and on Meloni’s new series, L and O: Organized Crime.

Yes, all their mesmerizing, simmering chemistry is still present as is their dedication to the job.  Of course, the rules of their job have changed since we met them a full 22 years ago but so have they.  More importantly, so have we.

EL AND LIV 4EVER

Today’s laws for policing are different.  On second thought, maybe it’s more that the laws on the books are now finally beginning to be enforced.  Cops wear body cams, DNA evidence is irrefutable and every eyewitness has a device to back up what they claim was done.

Together Elliot and Olivia bent the rules to protect the victims and the innocents, or at the very least ensure them some sort of personal justice.  Forever partners in stopping the bad guys, they managed to do this by channeling their deeply complex feelings for each other into cracking an infinity of awful, sickening and truly unimaginable crimes.

… and looked this good doing it

The deal, and the lure of their imaginary relationship in their imaginary world, is they figure out a way to go there and score victories for humanity and we get to believe that at the end of the day good can and often will triumph over evil. 

More times than I’d like to admit, Olivia and Eliot made me believe I might likely be safe and that life was not so much perfect but hopeful.  I think I can even speak for many fans and say most especially they also make us feel that even the worst trauma is potentially survivable.

She even triumphed over this haircut, which is saying something

If their stories are truly ripped from the headlines why can’t the outcomes of each episode also be within the realm of possibility? Why not believe things might be some degree of okay? 

For years and years, because let’s face it, when is Law and Order: Special Victims Unit NOT being broadcast (Note: At this point it’s older than most of my college students) we’ve known in our hearts it doesn’t ALWAYS work out that way.

On the other hand, given the antics of Olivia and Elliot, it also could.

I can hear this pic

Certainly there are worse things than to be addicted to and to delight in than the righting of wrongs for the disenfranchised by those good people, nee cops, working within our very flawed, but yet still somehow functional system. 

Or, well, has this kind of mythmaking now finally come home to roost and become part of our collective problem?

I wish that I could definitively state that my obsession for Elliot and Olivia/Olivia and Elliot (Note: Which one is it?) existed in real life and in real time and it was justice for the victim, balanced with adherence to the law, that makes me crazy with delight.

Because sometimes I really do believe this is so.

As I watched the trial of Minneapolis’ ex-cop Derek Chauvin live on TV for the murder of George Floyd this week this indeed seemed to be the case.

Law and order?

Chauvin’s the white guy we’ve now watched more times than we can now count, via iPhone footage, extinguish the life of Mr. Floyd, a large Black man who was suspected of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a supermarket, a bill the clerk is now saying Mr. Floyd likely didn’t even know was fake.

Nevertheless, Mr. Chauvin and his fellow officers wrestled their handcuffed suspect to the ground, where Mr. Chauvin placed the full weight of his knee and, it now seems, entire body on Mr. Floyd, who spent the majority of nine plus minutes pleading for his life, screaming I can’t breathe and eventually crying out for his mama as he died.

All this as Mr. Chauvin casually looked up at the sky and out to the city streets, perhaps even wondering what he would have for dinner that night.  (Note: Yes, it seemed THAT casual).

That this needs to even be said…

But what he never appeared to be considering at all were the shouts of the crowd of innocent bystanders gathering around him, demanding he stop the pressure, stop ignoring their pleas and generally stop his slow and deliberate choice to break the very laws he was hired to uphold in the name of enforcing them.

Watching the testimony of those random bystanders this week – a 9-year-old girl, an off-duty female firefighter/EMT, a middle-aged martial arts expert, and a sixty something Black man who just happened to be walking by – all break down on the stand as they re-experienced the guilt they felt at not doing more in the moment to prevent Mr. Chauvin’s debacle of justice as he ended Mr. Floyd’s life, was difficult.

In some ways, they were like a fine cast of supporting characters from one of the most harrowing of SVU episodes.  People who would clearly carry this trauma their entire lives but without the benefit of either Olivia or Elliot’s personal touch.  At the very least they wouldn’t have the business cards they offer with their direct lines and the assurance to call anytime they run into trouble in the future, or if they just want to talk. 

If only they were real life superheroes

As each angle of the Floyd/Chauvin tapes played, and with each recounting of events, one found oneself hoping for a different outcome for Mr. Floyd, his witnesses and even for Mr. Chauvin, all the while knowing this was impossible.  It was like the worst kind of rerun because you so wanted it to be series TV and not be real.

Still, every one came across as an imperfectly perfect dramatic TV moment, a hope vs. fear scenario told in real time. 

The latter is what I learned to do years ago as a young writer and a recurrent lesson I try to impart to my students.

The way the lesson goes is most stories are not so much mysteries but a suspense tug of war between what we WANT to happen and what FEAR will inevitably happen. 

It does get tricky

We KNOW the odds are stacked against justice prevailing but we HOPE justice will win the day.  We FEAR the chances our hero has to figure this all out in time to emerge victorious with a win are slim but we still KNOW, or at least, HOPE they have a shot.

It’s the writer’s job to believably represent that constant push and pull in the story by a masterful reveal of the facts and choosing how much and at what point to reveal them.  If done properly the audience will stay with us and fearfully hope for the outcome they (Note: And we, the writer) want because that outcome is only right and possible.

After all, we can look back on our own lives and count at least a few times where things fell into place and we got lucky with a confluence of events and our actions.  Why couldn’t that happen for the hero we are rooting for here?  Why can’t the type of people unlucky enough to witness the death of a man like George Floyd, as he’s being physically restrained by a cop like Derek Chauvin, emerge with some sense of triumph after their harrowing day on the witness stand recounting what is likely the most harrowing day of their life?

If it happens all the time on Law and Order, might it happen just this once on this day? 

I know Liv… I know

It’s unfortunate the witnesses on that Minneapolis street on May 25, 2020 don’t have the caliber of writers Elliot and Olivia had, and have, executing their outcomes.   

For that they will have to depend on us, or at least our surrogates – the jury.

Twelve people and two alternates, eight of who are white and six of whom identify as people of color, including four who are black.

Let’s hope they are all as committed to justice as we Law and Order junkies presume to be.  And let’s pray they are not just there to hold up the status quo rules of some rarefied and benevolent system that we fans have talked ourselves into believing exists just because it makes us feel better.

Law and Order Theme

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The Absence of Logic

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Do we now live in a country where we can decide that if a teenager looks suspicious based on skin color, clothing and stance we can follow him against police orders, approach him with unwarranted questions and then, when we don’t receive the response we want or are met with hostility, shoot him in “self-defense?” Apparently yes.

I don’t get it.  Why is an adult like George Zimmerman carrying a gun in the first place?  He’s not a police officer.  He’s a neighborhood watch guy who wasn’t even on duty when he shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a Black boy who was carrying nothing more than a cell phone and Skittles at the time. And forget the legal right to bear arms argument.  Use logic.  What is the point of carrying a gun with you when you live in a gated community and are going on an errand?  To pretend you’re an action star?  To derive some sort of gleeful macho joy, or booster confidence shot?  Or maybe it’s just that little bit of an extra upper hand when you’re trying to make a point and the other kid, I mean guy, is not listening to you?

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Skittles and broken dreams

I decided not to become a lawyer in my third year of college when I realized that legalese, memorization and cleverness in word twisting often trumped logic.  So I’m going to simply state it this way:  When Mr. Zimmerman called the police about this questionable kid they told ole George not to follow him and wait in his car.  But instead ole George got out of his car and tailed him, grumbling that these “punks always get away.”   What happened after that is anyone’s guess.  Except that one was a white person with a gun and the other was a Black kid just walking home, minding his own business.  Do the math.

Mr. Zimmerman’s defense attorneys loved pointing out that there is no law against getting out of your car and following someone.  Well, okay.  But if you’re walking along and being followed for no reason and are carrying a licensed gun, does that mean that you can then shoot the person following you?  What is harassment anyway?  Who has the right to shoot first?  Is this the Wild West?  Or just a Florida suburb where racism rules the day not only on the streets but also in court?  I’m not talking about law.   I’m talking about logic.

I am SOOOO tired of people saying race has nothing to do with this case.  It has EVERYTHING to do with this case.  White people think tall Black teenage boys and young men are suspicious and potentially menacing.  In fact, when I was a teenager, in the late sixties and seventies in New York City, it was often thought that if you saw one of those guys on the street and they approached you they’d either rob you, knife you or, worst case scenario, rape your girlfriend while pointing a gun at your head.

Flip the script.

Flip the script. Trayvon and George.

Except not always.  Not if you didn’t choose to think that way.

True story.  I can remember as a 13-year-old walking home from school in Jackson Heights, Queens one day when a Black teenager a couple of years older walked up to me fast and demanded my wallet, sort of motioning through his coat that he had either a knife or a gun.   The weapon in the coat looked a bit suspicious but I reluctantly gave him my wallet anyway because, well…you never know.  But then something funny happened.  I was compelled to ask him if he really wanted my wallet, since there wasn’t a lot of money in it, and how come he was taking it.  He replied that he needed money.  I told him okay, that I didn’t think he was a bad guy and asked how come he picked me.  He looked at me and said he didn’t know.

Queens tales

Queens tales

Then something even funnier happened then.  He didn’t run away.  He kept on walking with me.  So we continued talking.  He asked me where I went to school and I asked him stuff about himself.  He didn’t answer all my questions but I felt, as I walked home a few more blocks, we were getting to know each other a little better and I was proving that I wasn’t a racist – which was the worst thing a Jewish liberal kid in NY like me could be in 1968, or so I thought.  Also, I Just didn’t think this guy was so bad.  He didn’t have a killer look in his eye.  Nor did he have, it turned out, a gun or a knife.  Certainly he didn’t have a cell phone – though he might have had some candy that was the equivalent of Skittles.  In fact, I’m almost certain he must have.

I’m not any kind of young hero for making these choices because, as my mother later screamed in my ear when I told her this story: “YOU COULD’VE BEEN KILLED! WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU??!!!”  (Note: I was smart enough to not tell her this story until many years in the future so I suppose I do deserve some credit for intuiting that).   Rather than heroic, I simply think of myself as someone who, even though I was young, was mature enough to take the temperature of a tricky situation and approach it with calm and logic.

Calm, logic and maturity is something we should all employ when faced with potentially tricky, or difficult, situations.  Even when there is some risk involved.  You don’t stop an ant from eating your picnic food with a rifle.  Nor do you shoot the neighborhood dog chewing on your rose bush by blowing him away with a lit cannon.  Or stop the guy trying to steal your car, even if it is a Porsche, with an AK-47 and a round of 10,000 bullets.  It’s a machine, for god’s sake – not your sister.  Or someone’s son.

One more story.  About 15 years ago my boyfriend/partner/lover/not yet husband and I park our car in Beverly Hills and are walking a block towards the Writers Guild Theatre for a movie screening.  Suddenly, a group of young guys drive by in a revved up car and YELL at the top of their lungs, FUCKING FAGGOTS!  It all happened so fast that there was no time for reason, bitchy retorts or violence.  All I remember is that I was about to scream back at them – a scream that they probably wouldn’t have heard (but still…!), when my partner grabbed me and looked me in the eye, as if to say:  Why?

Why, indeed?  This is the first question I’d ask George Zimmerman if we were family, or even friends, something I know we will never be.  My second question would then be: if he saw the 17 year old gay boy me in the locker room at the gym while we were both changing and thought I looked at him the wrong way, would he start questioning me, too?  And what if I started yelling back at him?  And then a fight started?  If this were a Florida locker room, somewhere that I likely would have never frequented (but still!) would he be justified in shooting me too if things got heated and I defended myself from his harassment? (Uh yes, gay guys are frequently known to be shot dead for a single inappropriately bitchy retort).

This is not stretching the metaphor.  It’s all the same metaphor.  You can’t profile someone because you’re suspicious of their race, or sexual preference, or height, or gender, or weight.  No matter how many times you might have been challenged by a fat kid, or a short kid, or a gay kid, or a, well, colored kid.

I don’t give a shit what a jury said, what the law says, or how well a team or grandstanding, self-satisfied lawyers argue the case.  It makes no logical sense.  And it’s wrong.

Oh, coda to the wallet story.  Before he left, the kid gave me back my wallet, with my money inside.  Again, that doesn’t make me a hero.  But it does make me, as a 13 year old, a hell of a lot smarter than George Zimmerman.  Not a high bar, granted.