Ah, Dick Wolf: the prolific writer, producer and creator of one of the longest-running programs on television. The Law and Order show has spanned over a quarter-century, and ventured not only across virtually every facet of the criminal justice system but across both sides of the country.
Over the years, Order proper, SVU, Criminal Intent, Trial By Jury and Los Angeles have featured near-iconic performances from regular cast and guest stars alike. And thanks to near-constant reruns on TBS and TNT (just to name two stations), episodes from years before have the added joy of spotting early roles from soon to be breakout stars – from William H. Macy in the pilot to that time Stephen Colbert was a murderer.
Many episodes feature those ripe-for-TV-Guide words: “ripped from the headlines.” Cases that are, at least in part, inspired by true crime stories. The show’s writers take every possible liberty, awkwardly shoehorning in murders for their detectives to solve, when in reality, the crime blotter merely involved misdemeanours.
We’d like to imagine just what news clipping Wolf is running into the writer’s room with clutched in his hands. Some of these have already been recreated by the hit show, others are just simply bound to pop up sooner or later.
15. Harambe, Alligators & the Olympic Jaguar
If they haven’t already, the writers at L&O need to set their google alerts for “Florida crime.” America’s flaccid, dangling peninsula has produced some of the most entertaining, disturbing and bizarre criminal incidents in the entire country.
What’ll be your pleasure, Mr. Wolf? An alligator thrown through the drive-thru window of a Wendy’s? How about a cocaine trafficking ring broken up due to the tracking microchip of a Yorkshire Terrier? Or a modern day Bonnie and Clyde ending in a bloody shootout?
13. Reeva Steenkamp & Oscar Pistorius
How did SVU NOT cover this? The shooting of Reeva Steenkamp by her Olympian blade runner boyfriend Oscar Pistorius was one of the hottest stories of 2013. Pistorius claims he believed her to be an intruder when he shot her through the bathroom door. The trial dragged on for a year, resulting in a confusing not guilty – yet culpable – verdict.
It’s rare that SVU doesn’t leap all over a headline involving celebrity, murder and a dark grey area in between. The fact that the shooter was a man who overcame a physical handicap is the exact kind of eccentric twist that any good crime writer couldn’t possibly resist.
12. Hollywood Child Abusers
Earlier this year, Elijah Wood opened up about something Corey Feldman had been ranting about for years: a vast conspiracy within the heart of tinseltown. It’s very nature seems torn out of the pages of lurid detective fiction of days past, or at least the heavy hand of network television.
The secret cabal of child molesters insidiously tucked away in the upper echelons of Hollywood royalty has long been an open, unsubstantiated secret. A documentary about the issue, Amy J. Berg’s An Open Secret, has been seeking distribution for the past year.
SVU has confronted child celebrity abuse in the past, but incorporating Wood’s statements and the documentary (clearly, the Berg stand-in has to be murdered in the episode) is likely to occur next season.
11. Brock Turner
Just weeks ago, no pundit in the country was silent about the controversial ruling in the trial of Brock Turner. Turner, a champion swimmer, had sexually assaulted a fellow Stanford student behind a dumpster during a party. Turner’s family and friends pleaded with the judge for clemency, writing him letters about how the monster they had raised couldn’t even enjoy the pleasures of a steak anymore (#richwhitepeopleproblems). The six month sentence Turner eventually received was as sinful as the one Bob Dylan sung about in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”
If you think SVU won’t draw from this already infamous ruling, you don’t know Dick (Wolf). It’s a story too often heard and dramatized, though the angle of the family being so tone deaf to the rest of society provides enough of a twist for SVU to leap at it.
10. A Teen Periscopes Her Friend’s Sexual Assault Because of the “Likes”
The writer’s room at SVU is largely staffed with TV Crime veterans like Warren Leight (B. 1957), credited with the most-penned-episodes. With an older staff of writers, a show is guaranteed two things: plenty of Ensure in the office fridge and an almost hysterical fear of technology and youth.
Any episode involving a website or feature on of those fancy, newfangled internets usually has a Code: Donahue level of panic. Just take the show’s use of its various social media surrogates, which exist only to aide sexual predators, sugar daddies and underage drinkers.
So when it was reported that Marina Lorina, an 18-year-old Ohioan, allegedly livestreamed a friend’s sexual assault because she was “caught up in the likes,” we could literally hear Dick Wolf’s rapid footsteps as he dashed to the writer’s room. If this isn’t on by next season, we’ll eat our collective hats.
9. Man Kills Family, Disappears, Gets Another Family
On November 9th, 1971, John List returned home from work and suffered the worst reaction to a midlife crisis imaginable when he slaughtered his wife, mother and three children in Westfield, New Jersey.
List was caught, happily remarried and under a new identity 18 years later after the first episode of America’s Most Wanted aired a clay bust of the murderer (the second best use of such a bust since Lionel Richie’s blind girlfriend).
It’s a bit of a shock that it took Law & Order six years to get around to doing a List-inspired episode (Season 6’s “Savior”), seeing as he was already the inspiration for a fact based film (ironically starring Robert Blake), The Stepfather and it’s remake and – in the same year as the episode – Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects.
8. The Infamous D.B. Cooper
The story of D.B. Cooper is the ultimate unsolved true crime story. It has everything: daring escape, a mysterious police sketch and a public curiosity that’s lasted over 40 decades.
Around the same time List was slaughtering his family, a man known only as Dan Cooper boarded a Boeing 727 and extorted $200,000 before leaping from the plane mid-flight with a parachute.
Television and film have already speculated on just what happened to Cooper. A popular fan theory before the season finale of Mad Men was that Don Draper would turn out to be the skyjacker. Oddly, Law and Order never weighed in, despite having episodes involving unsolved heists.
7. The Seven Five
It’s not uncommon for L&O episodes to bite off far more than they can chew. Their ripped from the headlines cases are often muddled and incoherent due to its formulaic one-hour-drama approach. Occasionally, real life cases are just too sprawling.
That could be said of The Seven Five, a New York precinct rife with corruption throughout the 1980s. The eponymous documentary focuses on Michael Dowd, a ten year officer and easily one of the most crooked in the Seventy Fifth Precinct’s chequered history.
But L&O loves taking on corrupt cops, if for no other reason than to use its distrusted and counterproductive Internal Affairs Bureau headed by Robert John Burke. Given IAB’s role in taking down Dowd, it would be a terrific candidate for a multi-arc episode.
6. Anthony Porter
Porter nearly escaped being executed for a double homicide in Chicago due to the efforts of a Medill School of Journalism’s innocence project program. Another man, Alstory Simon, was identified as the actual culprit. However, Simon wound up later exonerated as well.
The questions and ramifications surrounding the case, as shown in the excellent documentary A Murder in the Park, make this ripe for Law & Order‘s general distaste for the media and its interference in the mechanisms of the legal system. Rarely has there been a journalist portrayed as decent on the show and – when they were – they were met with quick deaths.
4. When Trayvon Martin Met Paula Deen
In perhaps the most convoluted episode SVU has ever created, a racist TV chef shoots a young unarmed black teen in a hoodie dead outside her door. Writers, clearly with too few episodes that season to cram enough of the awful, racist events of 2015 came up with “American Tragedy.”
That’s right, crime junkies. In one single fell swoop, SVU decided that they would solve racism. The result is a hilariously tone deaf episode that only served to muddle the issue further. Be sure to tune in next season, in which a Donald Trump-like figure crashes a passenger jet into the ocean because xenophobia.
3. Chevy Chase Is A Racist
The Mel Gibson-drunk driving rant was gold for comedians and TV writers alike. It also inspired one of the strangest Law and Order riffs with “In Vino Veritas.” In it, Chase plays a washed up actor pulled over with blood on his clothes and zionist hatred in his heart.
Incidentally, the episode is one of the worst examples of the show unnecessarily shoehorning in a murder. It’s every bit as awkward as a Thanksgiving dinner with your racist relative (i.e. the show’s target audience).
2. L&O Catches BTK Before The Police Does
BTK – short for Bind. Torture. Kill – was a notorious serial murderer throughout the late seventies. After a hiatus, he continued to kill and taunt the police with letters in the early 90s. Police were stumped, profilers tried to match a loner who had trouble with women in his personal life to suspects in the Wichita, Kansas area.
Then they found Denis Rader, a mild-mannered cub scout leader and president of his church, had been behind it all. Law & Order released their episode, which involved the search for a long dormant killer (named R.T.K.), “Scavenger” in October of 2004. Rader was arrested in February of next year.
1. H.H. Holmes
With the recent news that Erik Larsson’s nonfiction book The Devil in the White City has been optioned by Leonardo DiCaprio, it’s a safe bet that SVU, L & O’s final living arm of the franchise, will be tackling America’s first serial killer.
Holmes would rent out rooms during the 1893 World’s Fair to visitors. The rooms were more like turn of the century scenes out of a Saw prequel, and the number of people murdered ranges from 27 to 2000.
Of course, SVU would have to modernize much of the story, here’s an idea:
Save this one for the final episode. The ultimate ripped from the headlines case. Since the original events took place in Chicago, writers could even use a multi-arc crossover with Wolf’s new monopoly over that city’s public services.
Sources: Fusion, Law & Order Wiki, Wikipedia, Huffington Post