5 Horrifying Ways Famous TV Shows Tackled Topical Issues
At its best, television is a kind-natured distracto-box which momentarily soothes the burns of this hell-gorge we call "life." So when a TV show decides to tackle some harsh real-world event, the social commentary is best applied with a fine brush. Unfortunately, most shows out there have the narrative precision of a kerosene-soaked wad of hobo cloth, so we wind up with embarrassing hours of television that are so hamfisted that they border on parody. For example, the five "special" episodes that I'm about to drop in your face ...
The Newsroom Bravely Quiets A Campus Rape Victim
Aaron Sorkin's The Newsroom is the kind of sopping-wet power fantasy your asshole social studies teacher drinks alone to. Set two years in the past, the show disguises hindsight as intelligence while presenting clearly biased views as "objective" assessments, the same way that "not racist" guy at the party just happened to memorize a bunch of disjointed crime statistics that "prove" only black people commit crimes.
One shining example is a 2014 episode wherein a reporter tracks down a rape victim his producer wants to interview on the air along with her unprosecuted attackers. The reporter finds her by cyberstalking her blog, asking around her favorite restaurant, and then showing up at her dorm ... only to tell her that he doesn't actually want her on his show. And that he feels uncomfortable even being seen in the private dorm room of a college-age girl -- which he had no problem shoving his way into only moments earlier like some kind of fucking nightmare.
This man is like Pennywise without clown makeup.
I know it's confounding that he would fiendishly pursue a source he's not interested in using, but by god, these soapboxes aren't going to build themselves. You see, this girl runs a website through which she and other rape victims can publicly name their attackers when the police fail to follow up (which happens in real life a hell of a lot). The reporter doesn't want her on the show because he's worried her website might damage the lives of the men accused of rape, and so he painstakingly tracked her down just to tell her why she's wrong.
That's seriously what happens in this five-minute scene: A middle-aged white male reporter calmly explains to an emotional rape victim that he is "morally obligated" to side with her gang rapists because he's "one of those guys that goes around saying that O.J. is not guilty because a jury says so." Because we should always trust in the law, even when it's awkwardly avoiding eye contact like a motherfucking serial killer.
"Wait, don't call the R.A. Fuck me, I forgot my backwards baseball cap. That's the only way you goddamn kids will listen."
That's how this episode ends, by the way. The reporter offers her no solution beyond being a quiet victim suffering in silence so her rapists can graduate in peace. His final push involves telling her that that by publicly accusing her attackers, she runs the risk of being "slut-shamed," and therefore shouldn't undergo the hassle of seeking justice for a horrific crime. It's the kind of hypocritical sentiment wrapped in the guise of righteousness that makes your brain want to self-destruct like the Nostromo.
Law & Order: SVU Solves Anti-Vaxxers By Ignoring Child Pornography
Your average Law & Order: SVU episode has all the nuance and understanding of a Glenn Beck fever dream. In the span of 44 minutes, they're able to take any topical issue and erode it down to the most polarized "good vs evil" scenario possible, like a slightly-better-acted high school play about the dangers of drugs and petty theft. So when it came time for this shining pillar of social commentary to point its lens at the anti-vaccination movement, the writers needed their characters to somehow get involved with a high school measles outbreak. Their solution shined down in the most SVU-y way imaginable: by tying it to a teenage orgy:
"And then she puts on a backwards baseball cap and they Instagram @ her hashtags" -- some 52-year-old screenwriter
Look, old people, it's one of them high school "rainbow party" sex gatherings, in which the girls give multicolored lipstick blowjobs and collect herpes like Pogs! The stalwart SVU detectives learn that photos of the naked, underage participants are being circulated on the Internet to be scooped up by lust-hungry child pornographers. So what does this have to do with anti-vaxxing? Absolutely nothing, which is why the entire ordeal comes to a wrenching halt when one of the girls' parents turns out to be a vigilant Jenny-McCarthy-esque punching bag accused of committing fraud in order to skip vaccinations for her kids.
"NAILED IT!" -- casting director.
Bafflingly, the child pornography case immediately takes a backseat to punishing this lady for skipping vaccinations, after one of the lead detectives' kids comes down with measles. Once they trace it back to Proxy McCarthy, the entire episode splays into a courtroom drama / medical emergency, while Ice-T and Richard Belzer politely carry on their "tracking down all the weirdos collecting child pornography" investigation in the background. And while the importance of vaccinations is totally a worthwhile message to convey, this is sort of like inserting a B-plot into Cannibal Holocaust about the safety of proper food handling. In the end, the hippy-dippy anti-vaxxer mother sees her day in court.
They're able to magically remove the offending pictures from the Internet, despite that being utterly impossible.
Scandal Solves Police Shootings In 40 Minutes
As we've previously discussed, police shootings are a complex and tragic problem with many systemic factors at play (racism being one of them). It's a subject that could take up an entire TV show premise, ideally created by someone smarter than us, like the people who made The Wire. Instead it got shoehorned into the political drama show Scandal, in a recent episode about an enraged father holding a shotgun protest over the body of his dead son.
Like, literally "over," as he sets a lawn chair on top of his son's body and sits in it with a shotgun.
It all starts when the boy gets shot by a policeman, and his grieving (and armed) father randomly shows up before they can even unroll the crime tape. As if summoned by some angry genie, a bunch of outraged citizens demanding answers about the young man's unfortunate death turn the scene into a mass protest in the span of a few hours, all while the body is lying in the street ...
"WHAT DO WE WANT?"
"WHEN DO WE WANT IT?"
For a show that's trying to take a serious run at the issue, it's a shockingly cartoonish portrayal -- the angry mob appears instantly to interfere with the crime scene. It's almost as insulting as the outcome of the standoff: The victim is completely exonerated of any wrongdoing thanks to the mustache-twirling confession of the blatantly racist police officer who shot him for no other reason than his being black. Because that's totally how systemic racism works. In the end, the crazy father who threatened people with a fucking shotgun and prevented the police from conducting an investigation is given a pass, and even gets a surprise visit from the President of the United States:
"Dead ... Killed ..."
"No, my love of acting."
The outcome is so simplistically happy that you can't help but feel your veins engorge with cynicism at the idea that a police shooting involving an unarmed black teenager would actually end like a Scooby Doo episode, with them pulling off a cop's mask to reveal homicidal racism underneath. But I guess I'm willing to believe anything in a world where a tragedy-struck father would sit on his son's rigor-mortis-gripped body and eat a sandwich in the name of justice:
Yes, that's a hoagie.
Law & Order: SVU Takes On Gamergate By Making Everyone Unhappy
For those unaware, Gamergate was a brief hashtag movement in 2014 which helped women gain a voice in the gaming community (Woo! Nice job, Gamergate!) before unceremoniously dissolving like a dead raccoon in a vat of pickle brine. Other than that, the most worthwhile thing to come from the hullabaloo is undoubtedly one of the most hilariously tone-deaf episodes of Law & Order: SVU ever. That's right, folks -- we're back in Dick Wolf's mind palace, and it's just as we left it.
This is about ethics in shitty television.
The episode follows a mashed-together caricature of Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn getting kidnapped and gratuitously brutalized. It's the worst depiction of online harassment ever to be narrated by Ice-T, who fumbles his way through gamerspeak like a blind man with a coloring book:
Like some kind of asshole magic trick, the episode manages to insult everyone. The loner video game misogynists of not-Gamergate are depicted as ISIS-level terrorists, men are painted as mindless violence junkies, and the female game developers who get victimized are ultimately punished for standing up for themselves. In the end, the villains are gunned down while the victim quits the industry, lamenting, "Women in gaming. What did I expect?"
If I had to find a silver lining, it would be the consolation prize of seeing the singer of "Body Count" be monetarily strong-armed into vomiting hackneyed video game references like a rapping granny. Well, a rapping granny who kills a teenager and jokes about it.
In the original draft, they throw Lipton teabags at the corpse while saying this.
It's excruciating for everyone. And still, this isn't the worst thing to come out of SVU ...
Paula Deen Killed Trayvon Martin On Law & Order: SVU
In case you haven't noticed, every Law & Order: SVU episode I've put on this list manages to take a recent controversy and exaggerate it in such a grotesque way that you kind of feel bad for the terrible people they are lampooning. And with her folksy vacancy and silver mane of the frightened aged, Paula Deen already looks like the ideal personification of racism. It was only dumb luck that the discrimination lawsuit against her surfaced in the exact same month George Zimmerman was put on trial for shooting Trayvon Martin, causing what I'm guessing was a fever of panic at the SVU production offices. And as the writers frantically jumped for both stories like a dog attacking the rain, they eventually landed on smushing the two narratives together like a campfire treat:
She kills him with a gun made entirely out of butter.
That's "Jolene Castille," a fictional celebrity chef played by Cybill Shepherd, who shoots a young black boy named "Craybon Marvin" or some shit while walking alone at night during a recent rape scare. You see, it turns out that Craybon matches the description of a serial rapist in the area (read: young and black), whom the cops have been hunting down with the bulletproof investigative technique of tactfully prejudiced stop-and-frisks:
"Uh, yeah, I'm not an actor. You're filming in front of my house, asshole."
Terminally lacking in self-awareness, the police are then forced to choose between probable cause and blatant racism, as it is revealed that our Paula Deen lookalike once referred to her black employees as "field hands". Any pretense of subtlety is brutally strangled to death in an alley when the episode reveals that the cartoonishly racist chef is so racist she refuses to touch Ice-T:
At this point, Ice-T just has that face during the entire process of making this show.
The episode ends with the obviously guilty chef being exonerated, same as with George Zimmerman. While that might be the realistic outcome, SVU is so batshit crazy that I was half hoping she'd turn into a snake-person whom Ice-T would then have had to kill with a pickax. Every episode seems like an over-the-top fictional cop show that exists in the Arrested Development universe, so much so that I'm seriously wondering if my very existence is a cog in some satirical GTA-like simulation left blinking on standby in a warehouse somewhere. Frankly, that's way less disturbing than picturing the writers' room of Law & Order: SVU.
Dave owns the world's largest collection of medieval dog armor. Hit him up on Twitter.
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