In 2002, I took in a dog. He’d lived in my neighbors’ backyard, and they couldn’t take care of him any more. For those first few weeks, training him to live in my apartment kept me from getting much sleep.
Something else that was new to me at about that time was cable television. Since I was now up at all hours, I started turning on the TV at all hours, looking for something to watch. I quickly found that there were always reruns of Law & Order on some channel or other. I’d never seen the show, and was soon hooked on it. When the announcer started in with, “In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups,” I would turn to to the dog and say “While the dogs aren’t represented at all! That’s not fair, is it, boy?” He never expressed an opinion.*
Anyway, I kept watching reruns of Law & Order long after the dog was housebroken. I wondered why, and formed a theory. Each episode starts with a very small group of people, usually two, sometimes more, minding their own business when they stumble upon a murdered corpse. They make these opening sequences evocative of as many aspects of ordinary life on the island of Manhattan as possible, creating the impression that Manhattan is a place where you might find a murdered corpse at any moment. Then they go on to explore the relationships the murdered person had with people still living; any relationship, between spouses, lovers, friends, relatives, business associates, anything, is established as a potential prelude to murder. Having thus painted Manhattan as Hell, as the ultimate disorder, they move on through the police and courtroom procedural to culminate in a jury verdict, a symbol of Order. So it’s a ritual that dramatizes the survival of order in a world of disorder. As such, it can function as a substitute for a conventional religion.
I was quite sure from the beginning that this insight was not new with me, but was recently jolted when I saw a movie I’d heard about for many years and saw that it was already so familiar that it was the topic of a filmed spoof as long ago as 1979. The movie was Mr Mike’s Mondo Video. The police procedural in the sketch isn’t Law & Order; in 1979, Law & Order was still eleven years from its debut.** Instead, it was Hawaii Five-O. In the sketch, there is a religious group that worships Jack Lord, star of Hawaii Five-O. The sketch goes on too long; if they’d cut after the singer finishes the first line of the hymn “Were You There When They Crucified Jack Lord,” it would have been a lot better. Still makes the point, though:
*The dog is still around, and I still say that to him whenever I happen on the opening of Law & Order. He still isn’t talking.
**Eleven years is less time than has passed since 2002 and now, and less time than passed between the debut of the show in 1990 and 2002.