The XX Factor

Is Law & Order Like a Lullaby for “Power Women”?

When I was 4 years old, I thought that every day, Big Bird and the Cookie Monster and Ernie and Burt and the rest of the gang from Sesame Street -not to mention Captain Kangaroo and Fred Rogers himself-used to sneak through my family living room at dawn and into my TV set so that I could watch them later that day. How else could they have gotten there?

Now that I am older and don’t completely understand the broadband mysteries of telecommunications but accept that the scientists and satellites do, I know better. And still: I must think that the stars of Law & Order past and present actually make a daily traipse through my apartment and somehow get ironed into my flat-screen every day before 4 p.m. How else to explain the fact that I have no idea that Jack McCoy and I are not close, personal friends?

I assure you I am not crazy, or at any rate, not delusional. It’s just that, apparently like many women with better things to do, I spend many hours every day watching Law & Order reruns, probably to my detriment. Michael Kinsley, in this publication, defined this cohort of female viewers as “power women “-possibly this is true of the others. Possibly this would be true of me-after all, I have a couple of Ivy League degrees and some reasonably marketable skills that could have, at a minimum, destroyed an insurance empire or two by now. But I am much too busy watching reruns of Law & Order to be using whatever power I might possibly have.

Could this have been Dick Wolf’s misogynistic and diabolical plan in the first place? What kids and capitalism could not do to keep women down, he could accomplish with a network TV series!

OK, plainly this is crazy, and as a person who believes that even Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, I am not easily swayed by conspiracy theories. Still, it is curious-while Michael Kinsley was kind enough to alert us to a phenomenon of women who previously were unaware of each other’s existence all of whom were engaged in the same daily ritual of Law & Order slavery, he did not offer a theory about why. Kinsley is easily one of the smartest observers of the American scene, and he was rendered speechless as to his topic’s teleology. At first, I too was gobsmacked. What could it be?

I suppose there is comfort in the show’s formulaic routine: It begins with one crime that appears to be what it’s about (1), then it turns out to be about something else (2), then that thing is solved, then it’s about justice (3), and then it’s about yet another thing (4), and somehow these four disparate elements are all tied together by hour’s end in a way that the complications of a busy woman’s life fail to be resolved, well, ever . That’s the easy explanation, and if we’re going use Occam’s razor as our heuristic-which is what they taught me to do in law school-that would seem to be the answer. So Law & Order is a lullaby of sorts.

But maybe it’s a little more complicated. When my friend Katie and I were studying for our federal-income-tax final in law school-which pretty much means memorizing the tax code, which means learning to think like an IRS agent, so you get the idea-we would reward ourselves by watching a DVR’ed episode of Law & Order after every section we mastered. Once we understood what happened with the proceeds of gambling and illegal activities, or how alimony was taxed depending on whether you gave it or received it, or any other little thing that would be elementary to any CPA, we’d curl up on my sofa, chain-smoke Marlboro Lights, and watch, transfixed as if we didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. This is Law & Order ’s real trick: Even though it is entirely predictable, it still manages to be suspenseful-a formula with only the smallest variable each time, like a red sock in the white laundry that changes the color of everything. And that difference in crime, that change of character, that new bit of scenery, that unexpected line of dialogue-it even makes reading the tax code bearable.