A friend asked me to watch this week’s episode of Law and Order SVU, a show I stopped watching years ago because its enjoyment of perversion–what awful crimes can we detail for our audience this week?–was disturbing. My friend told me this episode, “Collateral Damages” (season 17, episode 15), was about child pornography, so I expected the show to get the details all wrong. Television so often does.
Stop reading now if you do not want spoilers.
The episode begins with an undercover operation in which the cops set up a popular local celebrity so that he will commit a sex crime against an undercover cop posing as a girl “almost 16 years old.” In a bare few minutes, the celebrity meets the “teen,” tells her she is a bombshell, gives her alcohol, convinces her to pose topless for him, photographs her, and begins to unbuckle his belt. That’s when the cops move in to arrest him for producing child pornography and for attempted rape of a child.
I rolled my eyes and settled in for more simplistic nonsense. Then the show gets interesting.
The celebrity makes a deal to help the cops nail a “pedophile ring” in exchange for a lighter sentence. (The word “pedophile” is tossed around in the show in a facile way that makes it obvious the writers did not bother checking the definition.) He provides information that helps the cops identify IP addresses, and they move in to arrest several men. In a twist, one of the members of the pedophile ring turns out to be one of their own, the Deputy Commissioner no one likes.
The Deputy Commissioner’s wife, though, is well-liked, and her work as a children’s advocate attorney is respected. She and her husband have two children.
We watch as their home fills up with cops. We watch the cops take the husband and father away. We watch the confusion of the wife and kids. We watch as they are told to go to a hotel so the cops can search the apartment.
I wasn’t rolling my eyes anymore. My heart was pounding. I remember this.
I remember the chaos, the anger, the fear, the confusion.
Law and Order gets the bad guy, as usual, but this episode, too close to real life, is not neatly wrapped up.
To protect the children from the media firestorm, they are sent to live with grandparents. The wife is told to take leave of absence from her job. She moves to a hotel to avoid the press.
The husband tries to kill himself. The wife wonders how she could have missed seeing that her husband was sick.
The celebrity who actually did sexually assault kids? He will serve about six months.
The Deputy Commissioner heads to prison for four years as part of a plea deal that includes heavy duty treatment and registration. His anguish and shame and self-disgust is obvious. This time it is clear that he, while disliked by the cops and while guilty of looking at child porn, is also a beloved father and husband.
A good man whose family will suffer because of what he did. And his family is my family: collateral damage.When TV shows begin to show the inequities in the criminal justice system and the effect on the families involved, change is on the way.