What Can We Steal from “Doubt,” an episode of the television program Law & Order: SVU?

Title of Work and its Form: “Doubt”, an episode of the television program Law & Order: SVU
Author: Written by Marjorie David & Paul Kolsby, directed by Ted Kotcheff
Date of Work: Originally broadcast November 23, 2004
Where the Work Can Be Found: The episode is on approximately four times a day in syndication and can be found on the program’s Season 6 DVD.  “Doubt” is also currently streaming on Netflix.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Creation of Suspense

Discussion:
Don’t even pretend to lie: when you’re not feeling well, you grab a tub of ice cream and sit down on the couch, stuffing your face with Cherry Garcia and your eyeballs with Law & Order.  The program is a spiritual successor to Dragnet, one of the first police procedurals and one of the most realistic.  As you well know, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit sends Detectives Benson and Stabler in search of all kinds of evil sex criminals.

One of the reasons the Law & Order franchise has been so successful is because Dick Wolf and the other producers use the least amount of serialization possible.  The episodes are about the crimes and their resolutions in the justice system.  Sure, we hear about Stabler’s wife on occasion and we wonder when Benson will find the right guy.  Further, every episode can take place in a different world.  Here’s the formula: In this episode, Benson and Stabler immerse themselves in the world of SOME FUN MILIEU  to get justice for VICTIM who has been SEX CRIME.  In this case, the story goes like this:  In this episode, Benson and Stabler immerse themselves in the world of THE UNIVERSITY ART DEPARTMENT to get justice for A YOUNG WOMAN who has been RAPED BY HER PROFESSOR.

The story is not complicated, but David and Kolsby are very shrewd in the way they create suspense in the viewer.  When you watch a crime show such as this, you’re wondering whodunit and looking for clues.  David and Kolsby change your thinking about the he said/she said story every couple minutes.  Look at some of the “story beats” in the show.

  • A student claims she was raped.  (HE’S GUILTY! —we all dislike rape.)
    A professor openly tells the detective the student will blame him.  (HE’S INNOCENT—he’s being open and honest.)
  • The student recoils at being touched.  (HE’S GUILTY—that’s what happens to rape victims.)
  • The professor points out his bruises and claims they were having consensual rough sex.  (HE’S INNOCENT—it’s hard to distinguish between the two and why should he have his life ruined?)
  • The professor’s door open to the detectives, revealing a very young and very pretty girl.  (HE’S GUILTY—he clearly likes girls who are too young!)
  • The little girl is really his loving daughter.  (HE’S INNOCENT—and we feel a little bad for thinking he’s a monster.)

The episode keeps the viewer guessing and humanizes a man who may or may not be a rapist.  By the same token, the episode humanizes a woman who may or may not have falsely accused a man of rape.  These situations are often more complicated than people give them credit for.  Should a rapist’s life be changed by the punishment he (or she) receives?  Of course.  On the other hand, what about the innocents who have suffered this same punishment?  I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t envy the judges and attorneys and officers who deal with these cases.

If you’re going to do a he said/she said, then the man and woman have to say stuff.  This episode accomplishes that exposition in an awesome way.  Instead of having a scene in which Stabler and Benson sit the guy down at a table, the viewer gets his side of the story while he’s stripping down for the medical examiner to pull evidence off of him.  We contemplate the invasion of his privacy while we hear what HE says happened.  These scenes are intercut with the she says.  The woman explains her side of the story while she’s undressing and doing a rape kit for Benson.  Not only is the exposition accomplished in a fast and efficient manner, but the writers are also given yet another opportunity to evoke sympathy and anger.  (They’re manipulating you.  I hope you realized that.)

The best turn occurs at the end.  I’ve presented this episode to my class, and many folks were not pleased.  The foreman of the jury announces that a verdict has been reached.  The piece of paper is handed to the judge.  She reads it.  The foreman gets the paper back and reads: “We, the jury, find the defendant…”

And that’s it.  It doesn’t matter what the jury (by way of the writers) thought.  It matters what you and your family think.  If you watch this episode with others, maybe a discussion will ensue.  What could be better than that?

What Can We Steal?

  • Own your status as a manipulator.  As a writer, it’s your job to lead the reader (or viewer) along.  Fake them out.  Trick them.  How do you do that?  You play with their perception of the story in order to increase the joy in their experience.
  • Compress exposition in interesting ways.  Why have two interrogation scenes when you can have just one.  Even better, you get to set the scenes in a much more dramatic way than officers and suspects on opposite sides of the same table.
  • Respect your audience enough to let them think for themselves.  The ending of “Doubt” mimics real life.  Do you think a jury member ever REALLY knows if he or she is right?  Do defense attorneys know they are sometimes unsure as to their client’s innocence?  Doubt is a part of life, friend.  The argument goes on, in the episode and in the real world.

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