overthinking the idiot box

July 11, 2005

New York's Real Law and Order
by Erin O'Brien


The scene: a young woman is walking down a dark New York City street at night, her arms full of grocery bags. She's minding her own business and whistling to herself until an SUV pulls up and a man leans out with a gun in his hand. The man opens fire on the building on the corner, killing a teenage boy who had been loitering near the entrance. The woman drops her grocery bags, food spilling on the sidewalk, and gasps, "Oh, my God!"

Or, that's what would have happened if it hadn't been sunny out and I had gotten home twenty minutes earlier, or if this had been the opening sequence of an episode of Law & Order.

I've lived in New York for nearly three years, and the only encounters I ever have with violent crime are usually in my living room, on my TV. So it was quite shocking to come home after work one evening to find police tape surrounding my block.

He was definitely of the older-cop-who's-seen-too-much-and-might-be-a-recovering-alcoholic variety (see also: Cragen, Fontana, and the aforementioned Briscoe), but he came looking for clues wearing jeans and a green t-shirt, with his badge on a chain around his neck.
About a half hour after I got home that night, there was a knock on my door, and a homicide detective introduced himself by name, stating that he was from the "three-four." I was disappointed by his appearance; not only was he not Lenny Briscoe, he wasn't even wearing a suit. He was definitely of the older-cop-who's-seen-too-much-and-might-be-a-recovering-alcoholic variety (see also: Cragen, Fontana, and the aforementioned Briscoe), but he came looking for clues wearing jeans and a green t-shirt, with his badge on a chain around his neck.

This made me wonder about Law & Order in general, and how accurately it depicts my city. Of all the shows on TV, I always thought L & O showed the city I know better than any other. This is probably because they shoot in New York. I often recognize the street scenes in the background, so it looks like home. So many New York-based TV shows and movies (Friends, for instance, or CSI: New York, aside from a few exterior shots) shoot on a set or on a back lot in LA fashioned after the Big Apple. And, if you know New York, you can tell. It's just not the same.

L & O has also woven itself into the tapestry of the city in ways no other television show ever has. It's become kind of an acting rite-of-passage; if you ever go to a play in New York, you can count on at least half the cast boasting parts on L & O or one of its spin-offs in their "Who's Who" biographies at the back of the Playbill. It's also fairly commonplace to walk through a set, because they film right there, out on the street. It was with some measure of joy that I walked outside my apartment one morning and found fliers taped over all the parking meters on the block announcing that Law & Order: Criminal Intent would be filming there for two days, so no one was allowed to park. An inconvenience for some, sure, but dude. They were shooting a TV show on my block. (Which, to me, is cooler than that time my friend and I stumbled through an Apprentice task. Yeah, my friend got to be on TV for two seconds, but so did everyone else who was in Times Square that weekend. This was filming on my street, and I don't even live in a trendy neighborhood.)

So it's not hard to imagine that this show closely mirrors the city it's filmed in. But having a homicide detective show up at my door without a suit on gave me pause. For instance, the New York depicted in Law & Order sure is riddled with violent crime, especially those committed by rapists and serial killers. Think about this: excluding the latest, short-lived spin-off Trial by Jury, you've got 3 shows with 25 or so episodes per season, each episode depicting a different crime (or sometimes more than one crime). So that's roughly 75 violent crimes a year or so, right? Then, add the crimes depicted on CSI:NY, the late NYPD Blue, the new Kojak on USA, and all the other crime shows set in New York, and you've got a lot of crime piling up in the city that never sleeps. Yet, in 2004, there were only 91 murders in all of Manhattan (source). Does TV, then, exaggerate crime in the city?

Further, how is it that these cops travel all over the city? Officers are usually confined to their precinct, but then Fontana and Green (or whoever this Italian guy is that they've got subbing for Green while Jesse L. Martin films the Rent movie... I mean, while Green is in a coma) would run out of crime pretty fast. Their precinct, the 27th, doesn't actually exist, but in the 26th precinct, presumably nearby, there were only 5 murders last year.

Not to mention that the sum total of all marchers in the parade of serial killers over the many years the show has been on the air probably outnumbers all of the real-life, genuine serial killers there have been throughout history. That sort of antisocial disorder is extremely rare, but it's common fodder for an episode of everyone's favorite crime drama.

This is not to say that the show doesn't deal with real issues or real crimes, because it does, and that's why I find it so compelling. Even the ripped-from-the-headlines episodes, despite the sometimes farcical connections the show makes to real-life news stories, often ring true-to-life.

It's just odd; New York is enjoying the lowest crime rate it's had in years, but you'd never know that if you watched L & O regularly.

(Incidentally, the homicide detectives in my neighborhood caught the guy. It wasn't that hard, since there were a lot of witnesses. And it turned out to not be a random shooting, as the police guessed initially, because the shooter knew the kid he shot. Drugs were involved. Maybe not as juicy as these things tend to be on TV, but still out of the ordinary in my mostly residential neighborhood.)

A few weeks ago, I was summoned to serve jury duty at the New York County criminal court. It's too bad I didn't get picked to serve on a jury, because I think it would have been fun. Then again, my expectations might be inflated a bit; I'd go for the Jack McCoy-style theatrics and the wildly contrived mental defect defense, and I'd likely come away disappointed.

L & O messed up my sense of direction, though. I went downtown, expecting to go into this grand courthouse, with dramatic steps leading to the entrance and grand columns framing the door. Alas, I wound up at 100 Centre Street (which you may recognize as the title of a short-lived A & E drama starring Alan Arkin), which is far less grandiose. I'm sure it's a nice building on the outside, but you'd never know that because it's covered in scaffolding. (The bane of the architecture geek's existence! Why do you cover up buildings so, scaffolding?) Inside, it's all drab green and wood paneling, not nearly as nice as the interior of the L & O courthouse, with its marble walls and gold-accented elevators. There is a metal detector, though, that was sensitive enough that the button on my jeans caused it to beep. Which begs the question: how do the jaded widows smuggle guns into the L & O courtroom so often?

That building with the columns, based on what I can tell from closely examining exterior shots on the show, seems to actually be the federal courthouse. Good choice, generally; it's a much nicer building to look at. Not exactly factually accurate, though.

I assume, anyway. McCoy must represent New York County, because our plucky detectives never end up in the boroughs unless they're pursuing a suspect, and they're always trying to extradite prisoners from, like, Canada or New Jersey. (Non-New Yorkers may not know that there's a weird phenomenon afoot in the city; normally, cities fall within counties which fall within states which fall within the country. In New York City, each borough is its own county, so 5 counties make up the city. Weird, eh? New York County is solely the island of Manhattan, plus, according to the jury clerk, Roosevelt Island and a tiny slip of the Bronx.)

There were celebrities and bad actors at jury duty, though. Orientation includes an unintentionally hilarious video hosted by Ed Bradley and Diane Sawyer, among others, illustrating the whole world history of the justice system and also how neat it is to be a juror. There's a whole courtroom scene, too, to illustrate the juror's role in the proceedings, but I'll say, it's a little dull.

It was neat to get an inside view of New York's justice system, but I'll tell you: it's a lot more boring in real life than it is on TV.

So, basically what we've got here is the most New York of shows that isn't even really an accurate reflection of how law & order works in this city.

That's okay, really, because I suspect every day legal proceedings or, alternately, the life of an average New Yorker might make for mundane television. Then again, if there's one thing New York is not, it's mundane. On any given day, you can walk past a park full of people dressed as cows to promote a new coffee cream (that's where the actors who can't get a job after L & O end up, I'll bet), ladies doing yoga on the sidewalk, numerous religious groups trying to convert you, and a guy in a chicken suit handing out menus for the restaurant down the street. Residents don't own cars and the police sometimes ride horses. Restaurants put arugula on everything, then top it with goat cheese. Within a few blocks of where I'm currently sitting, there are three Starbucks, several falafel carts, a guy on the corner who sells fresh fruit out of a box, homeless people with their life stories written thoughtfully on cardboard signs, several of the most expensive and most famous stores in the world, and also Times Square, Grand Central Station, and the New York Public Library. And, like, people live here, among some of the most iconic landmarks in America, walking past them every day as if each were just another building. It's a weird place.

We look away when odd things happen on the subway, we buy groceries in overpriced bodegas that only take cash, and it's not uncommon to find a tiny studio apartment sandwiched between the apartments of a Hasidic man on one side and a tiny Chinese woman on the other.
Television has a way of representing things more the way it thinks the audience would like to see them than the way they really are. People expect New York to have crime and for its courthouses to be extravagant. They expect the city to be dark and gritty while simultaneously being sunny and trendy. It doesn't strike them as odd that Phoebe on Friends means Central Park when she says "the park," even though Washington Square Park is not only closer but much more up Phoebe's alley.

Law & Order is still more successful than other shows at depicting life in New York, though, because it depicts the every day folk that live here. We look away when odd things happen on the subway, we buy groceries in overpriced bodegas that only take cash, and it's not uncommon to find a tiny studio apartment sandwiched between the apartments of a Hasidic man on one side and a tiny Chinese woman on the other. Despite the inaccuracies, I see a lot of familiarity on L & O.

And I live for the Briscoe one-liner right before the opening credits. RIP, Jerry Orbach.

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