The highly anticipated Netflix original “Law and Order: Hate Crimes Unit” mini-season has finally dropped, and there is a lot to talk about.
The fidelity to the look and feel of the original franchise is impressive. Several scenes take place in the same Lower East Side location used in thousands of “Law and Order” episodes, making it feel like home. The choice of Sarah Silverman and Kumail Kanjiani as officers Brownstein and Patel to lead the show tells audiences immediately: This isn’t your father’s “Law and Order.”
Episode three of the five-episode mini-season, “Take Off, Eh?” is the most compelling and controversial. It is almost as if it was conceived of first and then minted as the series’ keystone. In it we find an embattled Canadian professor at Hudson University, loosely based on Jordan Peterson, accused of the murder of a transgender activist.
As the plot plays out, we find that the activist actually died of an accidental overdose, but is the character, Fordham Jeterson, aptly played by Rick Moranis, guilty of driving this poor trans activist to xir own death? As Brownstein puts it after ordering a hot dog at a typical New York stand, and having Patel decline an offer for her to buy him one because they give him gas, “Is it a pronoun? Or is it a gun?”
Episode one, “Swastikas and Corned Beef,” is a nice introduction to the characters, and it expresses the vital need we all have for the stories this series tells. In the wee hours of the morning, the night after Saint Patrick’s Day, some Irish hooligans in MAGA hats appear to spray-paint a swastika on the famous “Katzenberg Deli.”
As it turns out, the video did show them in the vicinity, but did not show the act of racist vandalism. By the end we learn that Yankel Katzenberg manufactured the anti-Semitic incident to drum up business. But thankfully one of the Irish thugs was arrested as a result of the investigation for having failed to appear at jury duty, and did 25 days at Rikers. Justice prevailed.
The only real disappointment in the series is episode two, “Is He Too White?” It is revanchist melancholia purporting to suggest that racism is possible against white people. It opens with a white guy, played by a seemingly bored Giovanni Ribisi, being doused with acid as he uploads a blog post on the free Wi-Fi at Starbucks. The attack was a result of a post he put up that suggested the United States is possibly, but maybe not, the greatest threat to the world. He even went so far as to say Sharia law might be bad.
His attackers are not convicted. One hopes this is a condemnation of a system that would regularly allow such a thing. But that isn’t made clear. Patel’s quip that ends the episode — “Take that, American greatness” — is hopeful, but far from the conclusive statement one would wish for. The show should have done better. It was not the expression of allyship the current moment demands.
The final two episode installment, “That’s Not Funny,” is perhaps the best and deepest look at fat shaming that American entertainment has yet produced. Throughout the series, Manhattan District Attorney Tad Jefferson White, menacingly played by David Spade, represents the racist patriarchy scoffing at the real violence hate speech causes. Well, now his chickens come home to roost.
After losing a case and getting drunk in a midscale, midtown Irish bar where lawyers drink martinis, White tweets out that the female judge in the case is “a cow who should lay off the fried chicken and chocolate cake.” Obviously, the closeted gay White wakes up hung over the next morning with Brownstein and Patel at his door.
Was his tweet a crime? Is this the only time he has engaged in dangerous fat shaming? Are his ratio and the 20 notifications every ten minutes that make his Twitter account unusable really sufficient punishment? As always, “Law and Order” is dealing with the issues Americans face daily.
This groundbreaking new show is as much a delight as an indictment of the horrors of Trump’s America. One feels after watching it like one has really done something, really helped the world be better. We can only look forward to what trespasses and transgressions will be exposed in season two.