Dear Mr. Wolf:
Once upon a time, in a far-off land often mistaken for New York City, you established the gold standard for cop-and-courtroom procedurals. It was never really New York, of course (the addresses were mostly fake; rich, white criminals were often convicted), but the cases themselves — the brutal murders, elaborate heists, heinous sexual assaults — certainly felt real enough. A little dramatic, maybe, but Law and Order always has been (and always will be) “ripped from the headlines.”
First came your flagship, Law and Order (which ran a whopping 20 seasons totaling 456 episodes); then your golden child, sex-crimes vehicle Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (17 seasons, 389 episodes thus far); then the major-case-driven Criminal Intent (10 seasons, 195 episodes). (I won’t speak of Trial by Jury or Law and Order: Los Angeles, both of which were a disappointment to the L&O canon.)
We loved and knew them all — thanks to marathons on USA and TNT, there was a time when, by an SVU episode’s cold open alone, I could recall from memory each suspect on the trail to the killer and the ultimate, unlikely motive. I loved your creations as only a young, white American woman who had only ever been to New York City for choir competitions could: righteously, religiously and somehow aspirationally. Despite having cut your teeth writing for cornier shows like Miami Vice and Hill Street Blues, you created franchises that stand in a category of their own. As a fan, I thank you for this.
But as time has passed, things have changed. Now I must ask something more of you, because it seems not to have occurred to you or your employer, NBC. Could you… maybe retire now?
Over the 26 years since Law and Order premiered, you have expanded your empire exponentially. In addition to the continuation of Law and Order and SVU, two of the longest-running shows on television, we’ve also now entered what I’ll dub “the Chicago period.” This includes Chicago Fire, Chicago Med and Chicago P.D., all of which have proven extremely successful. Now, NBC has announced it has given you another spinoff in the franchise, Chicago Justice, and I cannot stay silent another moment. I must implore both you and everyone who insists upon continuing to greenlight your projects: for the love of all that was ever holy about anything you’ve ever created, end it already.
Allow me to present my case.
Exhibit A: SVU is the walking dead. For its first decade or so, this show’s impact on the public’s understanding of sexual and gendered violence could not be overrated. From slut-shaming to PTSD to the ineffectiveness of the legal system for victims, SVU long tackled controversial topics that many still have trouble understanding today. (The only thing it was missing was a nuanced perspective on racial justice, but it was the ‘00s, and at least your writers tried.)
But then Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni, a.k.a. one half of the dynamic duo that long anchored SVU) departed in 2011, and Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) was left to carry the show practically on her own — first as sergeant, then as lieutenant heading the unit, with a rotating cast of increasingly difficult detectives. In Stabler’s absence, Benson has been put through the ringer: in terms of management responsibilities, as a single mother, and oh, yeah, being literally kidnapped and tortured for several completely unbearable episodes’ worth of Pablo Schreiber’s sadistic psychopathy. If the only way to keep ratings high is to subject your (Emmy-winning) lead — an extraordinary detective who has been through plenty over the years, all in service of telling a larger story about the complexities of sexual assault — to extensive, misogynistic torment that in no way reflects the actual careers of sex crimes detectives investigating far more quotidian and pervasive violence against women, should we not rethink the whole point of this show? (And don’t get me started on the Gamergate episode.)
Exhibit B: There is a new master of nighttime soaps. Her name is Shonda Rhimes, and I’m afraid her shows pull off impactful melodrama 10 times better than any of your newer Chicago shows. These vehicles clearly endeavor to recreate the emotional sincerity of Grey’s Anatomy for NBC audiences, and with good reason: People eat that shit up.
Perhaps you’re thinking this era is no longer a suitable environment for the stuffiness of a cut-and-dry procedural, one that uses the details of civil servants’ personal lives to inform their work—not the other way around. And perhaps you’re right; perhaps this is why Chicago Fire does so well despite the fact that said firefighters seem to do more fighting and sleeping with each other than they do putting out fires or administering emergency medical aid. While SVU, once upon a time, at least attempted to familiarize the public with the clusterfuck that is the American justice system, I’m not sure I’ve learned a damn thing about firefighting, except that it is scary and makes people very horny.
And yes, I am well aware that the ratings on these shows continue to hold strong for NBC. I am also aware that this is also the case with CBS’s Blue Bloods–a very racist show. I am also aware that Donald Trump is very popular. I am aware, too, of the saying, “Too much of a good thing.” Are you?
You’ve already done so much for us, Mr. Wolf. You’ve produced thousands of episodes of excellent television, most of which has been syndicated within an inch of its life, ensuring that Law and Order, even as it fades from contemporary relevance, will never truly die. But now you’re doing what the kids call “the most,” so in the interest of keeping your legacy intact, I must insist you walk away and maintain the dignity your oeuvre has earned you. Abandon this weepy, tasteless nothingburger of a narrative path you’re headed down, kick back with a Mai Tai and bask in the sunlight of your accomplishments (and insane fortune) on a private beach somewhere, posthaste. You deserve it. So do we.
Devon Maloney is a culture writer living in Los Angeles whose work has appeared in Wired, Vanity Fair, Grantland, Vulture and the Los Angeles Times, among others. She previously wrote about Harry Potter and overachievers for MEL.