In the ripped-from-the-headlines world of Law and Order: SVU, a pandemic is happening, just like in real life. Or is it? The show, which is in its twenty-second season, seems to change its own mind on this point multiple times within a single episode.
In an obvious reference to the Amy Cooper birdwatching situation in Central Park last October, the first Law and Order: SVU episode of the season starts with a white woman, her mask on her chin, calling the cops on a Black man for “threatening” her and her son in the park. As unmasked officers show up, her son finds a body in the dirt, leading the cops to forcefully arrest the Black man. Arriving on the scene, Captain Olivia Benson—who quickly pulls her mask down to talk to the victim and onlookers—suggests that her colleague ride along with the victim in the ambulance, but the EMT shuts her down: “Sorry, COVID.”
The season, which just aired its seventh episode, proceeds confusingly. Cops meet up and pull their masks off quickly before sitting close together indoors or in cars. When they interview a suspect in a closed room in the precinct, he initially wears a KN95, but then removes it mid-conversation. When officers Rollins and Tamin visit a hospital, they don surgical masks, but the medical worker they’re speaking to does not. Officers show up at victims’ and witnesses’ homes often without masks and often don’t always observe social distancing. On a jury, only a handful of jurors are masked. There’s clearly effort on SVU’s part to depict reality, but what’s the logic here?
I’m not the only one feeling like I’m lowkey losing my mind when I watch SVU. When new episodes drop each week, similar responses trickle onto Twitter, calling the show’s inconsistent pandemic messaging “terrible” and “so stupid.” The show is so bad at depicting the pandemic, in fact, that a recent episode made one viewer think SVU had ended it in its universe altogether—until masks appeared several minutes in. “WHAT THE HELL. DO IT OR DON’T DO IT. THIS IS LUDICROUS.” The musician Vagabon tweeted last week: “this season they are actively incorporating covid and it’s weird because they take their masks off when they enter a closed space or interrogate someone and it‘s so weird to see them use masks wrong?” To outraged and confused viewers, there’s an idea that SVU should do the masks right, or it shouldn’t do them at all so as to not misinform viewers.
To counter these complaints, there’s a running joke that the show’s approach to mask wearing, especially among police officers, is one of its most accurate elements. It’s been common to see cops doing their jobs without masks in New York City over the past year. In June of 2020—around the time NYPD officers were showing up to protests, largely unmasked—the Twitter watchdog account @nypdmaskwatch even began crowdsourcing the many instances of NYPD cops going bare-faced in public.
The confusion about how to handle COVID certainly isn’t limited to SVU. As network TV shows resumed production last year, everything from Superstore to This Is Us to South Park has had to decide how to depict the pandemic, though medical shows like Grey’s Anatomy received the gift of a new plot device. TV shows might even have a responsibility to inform viewers of issues like racial inequities in health care or anti-vaccine movements, showrunner David Schulner of the medical drama New Amsterdam told US Weekly in a podcast last year.
However, as some of these attitudes land better than others, they call into question what we ask for from our TV shows.
To some SVU’s viewers, the show’s approach doesn’t really matter, because television is supposed to be escapism. On Friday, an SVU viewer tweeted at Ice-T to ask him why nobody on Law and Order wears a mask. Because the show is “make believe,” he wrote in response. At least one viewer has commented that the show’s inclusion of masks and distancing makes it less viable as escapism content. After all, how much can you really escape reality through a show whose entire foundation is to mirror back what’s happening in the news?
There’s certainly a logical explanation for intermittent suspending of disbelief around the pandemic on TV, like the fact that it would be harder for viewers to understand and hear speech or see emotion if everyone was masked. That probably wouldn’t be enjoyable to watch. But when you take into account the mixed messages it gives viewers, this muddled approach to acknowledging the pandemic feels just as bad as not doing it at all.