Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is known for taking on oddly niche news stories and bringing them into the public consciousness, but this week it hit close to home. The main story on Sunday was about the Law & Order franchise. Oliver highlighted the show's connections with actual law enforcement agencies – and actual law enforcement controversies.
In his monologue, Oliver called Law & Order a "commercial" for a "defective product" -- arguing that it generally misrepresents what police do and how successful they are at it. He made an analogy to medical dramas like Grey's Anatomy, where many viewers assume the medical information is accurate. He compared Law & Order's depiction of police to Grey's Anatomy hypothetically sharing unscientific information about vaccines. He said: "If a medical show was giving us inaccurate information, we would say it's dangerous... We'd probably be having a conversation about, [and] that's essentially what Law & Order is doing."
Oliver described some of the prominent tropes and themes that exist throughout the hundreds of episodes of Law & Order, using various clips to support his generalizations. He argued that, in general, the show suggests that "cops can always figure out who did it" and that defense attorneys are portrayed as an annoyance and an obstacle to the hard work the police are doing. He said that the show also implies that police brutality is acceptable in some forms if it leads to "a just outcome."
Meanwhile, Oliver compared these fictionalized ideas with real statistics and reports on police activity from throughout the U.S. He pointed out that only a tiny percentage of sexual assaults are ever solved in this country, while Law & Order: Special Victims Unit shows one being solved nearly every week on national television. He acknowledged that the TV version of events is much more entertaining and compelling, but can instill some dangerous misconceptions in the public consciousness.
Oliver also pointed out the ways in which Law & Order ignores or obscures racism in policing. He said the police on these shows "mostly convict white people," failing to depict "a flawed system riddled with structural racism." More than anyone else, Oliver seems to hold series creator and executive producer Dick Wolf personally responsible for these issues. He highlighted the ways in which real-life police departments have counted on Wolf's work for public relations, even through real-life controversies.
Like so many of Oliver's segments, this one has drawn some serious backlash on social media. The individual segment is available in full on YouTube, and the complete episode is streaming on HBO Max.