There are all kinds of Lenten sacrifices. As a kid I used to swear off reading Baby-Sitters Club books or vow not to fight with my sister, and meanwhile my Catholic-school classmates and I would joke about giving up homework or broccoli or (gasp!) going to Mass. Unfortunately, this diversionary tactic—”I’m giving up paying the rent, ha ha!”—does not work for adults, and when I graduated to more grown-up fasts I encountered other stumbling blocks. Sacrificing desserts put a damper on my social life (nobody wants to be around the girl who turns down cheesecake), and it also felt like cheating—a New Year’s resolution to lose weight disguised as religious discipline. The year I gave up coffee, I discovered that six weeks of cranky caffeine-withdrawal did nothing to edify the spirit. So this year I was determined to come up with a Lenten sacrifice that reflected the circumstances of my adult life without adversely affecting my relationships or concealing ulterior motives. I needed an entirely expendable luxury, something I would miss but not physically crave; something I could return to on Easter Sunday without feeling guilty.
After much soul-searching, I decided to give up Law & Order (watching the television series, that is, not adhering to the social code). I had never been a fan of the show in the traditional sense, but when I moved to New York and began my part-time career as a babysitter (credit all those sinful BSC books!), cable reruns of Law & Order became my anti-drug. Each night the child in my care would take to his crib, and I’d turn on the TV just in time to hear, “In the criminal justice system . . . ” (Chung-chung!) Three hours later I’d turn the TV off, but only because the child’s parents had come home and expected me to leave. Giving up the show for 40 days would be a true challenge and a pure sacrifice, and since I indulged only when I was alone, it would inconvenience no one but myself. And of course, once I thought of it, committing to some lesser sacrifice would have felt like cheating. By keeping track of my struggles, I hoped to learn something useful about myself.
Week One: I am pleased to discover that, without Law & Order to eat my evenings, I am more productive. I call my parents, instead of ignoring my phone so I won’t miss any plot twists. I read more: I finish The New Yorker the day it arrives, and I don’t even skip the Financial Page. So far, so good.
Week Two: Withdrawal is acute. I long to punctuate my evening hours with periodic chung-chungs and smooth sax riffs. Anticipating spiritual weakness, I had decided that the terms of my fast included all shows with Law & Order in the title, even Criminal Intent, which I don’t like anyway. But that doesn’t mean I can’t watch other urban crime dramas. I try to make myself a fan of CSI or The Shield, but who can be bothered to learn the characters’ backstories? (Law & Order eschews such distractions). In my lowest moment I find myself lingering over Court TV. I have a hard time believing that God is glorified by this sacrifice.
Week Three: In a cruel twist of fate, my favorite of the Law & Order franchises, Special Victims Unit, is filming an episode in the neighborhood where I babysit. The terms of my Lenten fast did not mention live-action performances, and I dream of being cast as “Passerby With Stroller.” On the appointed day I take my young charge out for a walk, promising him the coveted role of “Baby in Stroller” if he behaves. We loiter near the equipment trucks and trailers, but it is noon and the street is deserted. I crane my neck for a glimpse of Chris Meloni or Mariska Hargitay, or even Ice-T, but lunch (or God’s wrathful intervention) keeps them out of sight. Baby in Stroller starts to cry, and I move on, disappointed.
Week Four: Law & Order continues to invade my personal life. A well-meaning friend prints out a copy of an old Slate article discussing women like myself, who watch reruns of the show for hours on end, alone, and never speak of it to each other. The author, Michael Kinsley, calls it “The Secret Vice of Power Women.” That same week, some co-workers at my part-time job chat about which Law & Order A.D.A. they like best (Stephanie March, of SVU, wins hands-down; the current blonde on L&O: Original Flavor is universally derided). That night Ice-T appears in my dreams, encouraging me to remain strong and avoid the near occasion of sin.
Week Five: As my 40-day fast winds down, I am surprised to discover that I have stopped imagining my life as if it were an episode of Law & Order. I no longer scan the bushes for corpses when I’m pushing a stroller through Riverside Park. I greet the doorman in my building just to be friendly, not so he’ll be able to vouch for my comings and goings if I am later reported missing. I’ve stopped imagining what my parents will say when the police notify them of my disappearance or demise. (This, I’ve decided, will be a very dull scene, because my life currently lacks the kind of twist that would lead the investigation in a new direction. “Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, we’re sorry to have to tell you this, but . . . we have reason to believe your daughter was acting as an agent for a group of Palestinian terrorists.” Or, if the detectives on the scene were Stabler and Benson: “Did you ever suspect your daughter might be receiving drugs in exchange for sex?” None of these scenarios would fool my parents, even in a bewildered state of grief.)
This is the week when I learn the most about myself and my need for Law & Order—the show, but also the institutions. At first I had thought living in New York City would blunt the escapist joys of the show, since the crime scene addresses that pop up on the screen with every chung-chung are real places to me now (or, at least, they could be). The show’s real-world feel is part of its charm; the Times recently named Law & Order one of several prime-time shows that have engaged in Bush-bashing this season, and quoted creator Dick Wolf: “Virtually everyone who lives in the lower 48 states at one time or another has been offended by Law & Order.” I suppose this is true; I personally find it offensive that every Catholic priest on the show is a redhead named “Fr. Mickey O’Irish.” But generally I am comforted, not shaken, by the TV version of life in the rotten Big Apple.
In the television version of the criminal justice system, all cops are dedicated, hardworking, and good-looking. Time is telescoped so that every criminal is captured and prosecuted within an hour (and the confusing or boring parts of the legal process are silently skipped). Unsolved crimes are not an issue; the TV-NYPD has unlimited resources, and forensics experts can extract damning clues from the tiniest bit of evidence. Murder will always out, whereas in real life police waste a lot of time directing traffic and wrangling drunks, and big crimes often go unsolved because there’s no scriptwriter to match the soil on the soles of the suspect’s shoes with a kind of dirt found only at the crime scene.
The NYC of Law & Order, however gritty and “ripped-from-the-headlines,” is a simulacrum where I can take refuge after a long day living in the real thing. The terror that permeates even the most affecting episode is artificial fear, and a strangely comforting escape from the everyday terror I feel walking around this nervous city, clutching my purse on the subway or freezing at the sight of perfectly legitimate low-flying planes. Furthermore, those perps aren’t really criminals; I saw that drug pusher in an Off-Broadway play last week.
Week Six: I can’t decide if the man I see on the bus on Palm Sunday is really SVU cast member B.D. Wong, or if I am hallucinating after my long fast. As Lent draws to a close, I find I am looking forward to Easter with greater zeal than usual, although perhaps not for the right reasons. I cannot wait to return to the comforting embrace of the artificial criminal justice system, where each chung-chung means the city of New York is safer than before. I know I can take for granted that justice is still being served, day or night, on cable; maybe next Lent I can focus on strengthening my faith in real-life law and order.
Mollie Wilson would love to take Detectives Stabler and Benson out for cheesecake
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 6, 2004