Over the years, John Oliver has gotten into public scuffles with politicians, global brands and world leaders, but he may have picked his biggest fight yet when he took aim at Law & Order. In a recent episode of Last Week Tonight, Oliver dedicated a long segment to criticizing the popular police procedural and its impact on the real world. In particular, he highlighted the show's connections to real-life law enforcement agencies.
Oliver made the case that, in a substantial way, the Law & Order franchise is to blame for the national debate on police reform in the U.S. today. He called the show "a commercial" for a "defective product," arguing that it gives viewers a false impression of what police do and what they are supposed to do. He said that this makes it harder to have a meaningful debate about police reform. He compared this to the genre of medical dramas like Grey's Anatomy, saying: "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.