or 20 seasons, and still today, writers of Law & Order have tugged at the emotions of millions of viewers through its dramatic and engaging representation of the criminal justice system. The success of the longest-running crime drama on American primetime television can largely be accredited to the show’s ability to tackle any and all controversies.

Take, for instance, an episode in which a Jewish taxi driver kills a black youth in a hit-and-run, resulting in an outbreak of riots in the streets of New York City. According to television professionals, this type of writing provokes feelings of hatred and hostility, which allows the viewers to become fully immersed in the show’s drama.

By taking controversial issues, often based on true events, and personalizing each episode to its audience, Law & Order successfully offers its viewers opportunities for reflection and debate over the U.S. criminal justice system. “The actions within the stories are reflections of who we are. We can see ourselves and where we fit into the criminal justice system,” says actor and UCSB alum Benjamin Bratt. The show’s ability to connect with its viewers and spark household discussions over controversial social and judicial issues is what kept millions of Americans returning each week for two decades, Bratt says.

UCSB hosted a day-long event exploring the impact of the Law & Order brand on society, and its extraordinary success over the years, on Friday, April 15, 2011. Panelists included a mix of actors, producers, industry professionals, and academics. The second session of the day analyzed the social and cultural significance of Law & Order and the manner in which the series represents crime, punishment, the criminal justice system, and the law.


The panel opened with a clip from the Season 20 opening episode, “Memo from the Dark Side,” in which the topic under debate was law versus ethics in regards to the Bush administration’s torture lawyers. Golum told the panel how part of the show’s success in tackling controversies is due to the manner in which it creates episodes based loosely on current events. While the show is indeed fiction, “Dick Wolf has been known to say that the Bible for the show is the front page of the New York Post,” Golum says.
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With the rise of the Internet and the increased accessibility to news coverage, using actual events as the basis of each episode provides the audience with immediate familiarity in regards to the issues at hand. This technique of “ripping from the headlines” is the way in which Law & Order engages its viewers and makes them believe the stories are true, says Charlotte Brunsdon, professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick: “It provides an amazing insight into reality.”

Ripping from the headlines is one thing, but Law & Order’s accuracy in its depiction of the actual U.S. criminal justice system is another issue entirely. Are the dramatic stories we watch each week true representations of what takes place outside of the television? According to the panelists, yes. Although the show is an accelerated version of reality – the events in each episode could realistically last for months – the processes of criminal investigation and prosecution seen on the show are authentic depictions of the criminal justice system. “The audience wants to feel the urgency of solving the case. That’s what makes it a drama,” says Arthur Forney, co-executive producer of the Law & Order branded series. As for the accuracy of the show, Forney told the panel of instances in which both law enforcement and lawyers have expressed their feelings of fair representation on the show.

The key to making the show believable and appealing, Forney says, is its approach to staying true to the dissatisfying aspects of reality, as well. “In reality, justice is not always served. The uncertainty of this is what keeps the viewers returning each week,” Bratt says. By concluding with unhappy endings or unanswered questions at the end of an episode, Law & Order leaves its audience thinking; when the episode is over, families, friends, and colleagues can turn to each other and discuss the grey areas of legal and criminal issues presented in the show.

The viewers aren’t the only ones absorbed in the uncertainty of the show’s events. Bratt described his memory of courtroom scenes, where actors playing the jury were so caught up in the drama of the scene that their facial reactions were very expressive and completely genuine. This display of authentic reaction, Bratt says, is what puts the viewers in the jury’s place, effectively allowing for further self-reflection in regards to the criminal justice system.

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Moreover, Law & Order has influenced the way in which people understand the judicial process. Lisa Hajjar, Associate Professor of Sociology at UCSB, noted that the so-called “Law & Order Effect” gives people an awareness of the jurisdictional clashes that occur during the judicial process. The ability to act as an educational tool is just one of the attributes that make Law & Order one of the most successful shows in television history, Hajjar says.

The panelists pointed out that it’s easy to see how a show like this – one that tackles controversies, provokes strong emotions, and sparks intellectual discussions – isn’t just a mere TV drama. It’s a powerful insight into reality that sticks with you long after you turn off the television. Creator and producer of the Law & Order series, Dick Wolf, successfully managed to translate his perceptions of the world into something millions of viewers could understand and enjoy. Bratt ended the Social Significance panel by saying, “Dick didn’t have a particular agenda, but he realized that these stories are all relatable because really we’re all the same human beings.”

This event was hosted by UCSB’s Carsey-Wolf Center. The center, partially funded by Law & Order creator Dick Wolf, strives to provide students with a better understanding of the role of media in society.

benjamin bratt

benjamin bratt benjamin bratt

Best known for his role as Detective Ray Curtis on the television crime-drama Law & Order, Benjamin Bratt is one of UCSB’s distinguished celebrity alumni. Born and raised in the Mission District of San Francisco, CA, Bratt is the grandson of Broadway actor George Bratt. Bratt’s passion for acting did not develop until he came to UCSB, where he was a member of the Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Theater in 1986.

Throughout his time at UCSB, Bratt participated in a number of performances, including Hecuba, The Two Gentlemen of Venice, The Merchants of Venice, and Marco Polo Sings a Solo, in which he received great reviews: “Benjamin Bratt gave a superb performance as Lusty, a macho, suntanned Marlboro man of 1999” (Daily Nexus, May 17, 1984).

After graduating from UCSB, Bratt returned to San Francisco to join the American Conservatory Theater, but left before receiving his M.F.A. degree to make his television debut in the series Juarez. After various television and movie roles, including his nine-episode run with the TV series Knightwatch, Bratt’s television breakthrough came when he joined the cast of Law & Order in 1995.
Bratt’s character on the show, Dectective Ray Curtis, is one with significantly more character development than others. While speaking at the Social Significance panel, Bratt noted that while Law & Order Creator Dick Wolf had a clear idea of the type of character he wanted Ray to be – a moral and religious man – Bratt was still able to provide some input to define the character’s background: Ray’s native Peruvian and German-English ancestry mirrors that of Bratt.

After five seasons – a total of 95 episodes – with Law & Order, Bratt left the show to spend more time with his family and further pursue his movie career. In 1999, he was nominated for an Emmy for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series. In 2009, Bratt returned for a final appearance on Law & Order during the show’s last season.

dick wolf

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Law & Order, the longest-running crime drama on American primetime television, is just one series of the successful Law & Order Franchise, which includes four related series, all dealing with some aspect of the criminal justice system. Other series include Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and Law & Order: Los Angeles. According to panelists at the Law & Order: Changing Television Retrospective at UCSB, the strength of the Law & Order branded series as a whole stems from its use of shared people and resources in a common setting, New York City (except, of course, Law & Order: Los Angeles).

The show, which tied Gunsmoke for the longest-running American drama series of all time, has also been nominated for the most consecutive Emmy Awards of any primetime drama series. The franchise’s other noted accomplishments include international adaptations in Paris, Moscow, and the U.K., the television film Exiled: A Law & Order Movie, and various Law & Order video games.

Dick Wolf, creator and executive producer, is the leading force for this powerful franchise. Before he created Law & Order, Wolf was a staff writer on Hill Street Blues, and won an Emmy for an episode on which he was the sole writer. He then advanced to become the supervising producer on Miami Vice.

In addition to his successful Law & Order branded series, Wolf was also the creator and executive producer of NBC’s courtroom reality series Crime & Punishment. Shortly after, Wolf was the producer of the Academy Award-winning short documentary Twin Towers, a story about two brothers who died in the line of duty on September 11th. Most recently, Wolf received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame on March 29, 2007.

Along with television producer Marcy Carsey, Wolf is one of the leading donors for the center, and now serves on the Carsey-Wolf Center’s advisory board.

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