Good Story Writing Inadvertently Reveals Incompetence

Sometimes, really good story-telling can backfire… BADLY!

The perfect example of this is on Law & Order SVU… Honestly I dislike this show. I know it’s popular, but honestly it’s barely a cheap dime store replacement for the original and for many reasons. Most notably in my case, the characters (except Munch) are NOT likable. They are grossly incompetent, way over emotional for their jobs, and too quick to judgment. This is made abundantly clear in the 2005 episode entitled ‘Contagious’

The Episode Info

Where do I begin with this Episode…

Well let’s take a look at the plot:

A drunk driver causes a car accident with a family of three in Central Park. The family survives the crash, but are taken to the hospital to have their injuries treated. As a doctor tries to change Holly’s clothes and replace them with a hospital gown, the girl immediately panics, impulsively and frantically kicking at the doctor. At this point, it’s assumed that there has been sexual foul play, and the hospital contacts SVU… and here’s where the fun begins…

With her parents unconscious and undergoing surgery, the hospital finds that they can’t get permission to take a physical exam in order to determine whether or not she was assaulted… since they appeared to be awake a few scenes later, you would think that they could wait to get that info… However Detectives Benson and Over-actor… ahem, I mean Stabler are called and Casey Novak, who’s own incompetence I will get into later, gives them court-ordered permission to carry out the exam. Hendrix still needs the presence of the police to document the progress of the examination of Holly, and though she prefers not to have any strange men in the room, Holly seems to take comfort in the presence of Detective Stabler… wonderful… it’s going to be a stabler drama episode… Here we go…

As their worst fears are confirmed, the SVU tries to find out who molested Holly… without… you know, looking into any residual DNA evidence that could still be present or anything like that. After revealing the abuse to her parents (wait, weren’t they out cold?), they claim that her injury was due to a bicycling accident, and medical records confirm this, which rules them out as suspects.

Despite their concerns over her psychological well-being, they agree to let Benson interview her, and eventually, she breaks down and finally admits she was molested, but refuses to reveal the culprit, because he threatened to shoot her and her family. To make matters worse she also reveals that he killed Laura Swift, a girl around Holly’s age who is the subject of a widely publicized missing persons incident who hasn’t been seen since she was in Flushing Meadows – Corona Park. So things are heating up. Time to take the kid gloves off and do some actual, professional, proper investigation, right? Oh ho ho, you clearly don’t know Law and Order SVU my friends…

The detectives now realize that besides finding out who molested Holly, they also have to find Laura Swift’s body and drama ensues. During another psychological exam, Dr. Hendrix (another one whose incompetence we’ll get into later) gives her the opportunity to draw, and is quite impressed with her artistic skills, yet blatantly ignores some very telling evidence in the pictures that could have helped solve this a lot sooner… moving on…

Meanwhile, Benson and Stabler interview Mark and Julie Dobbins a couple who are friends of the Purcell family and have daughters of their own. While interviewing Holly’s art teacher, Fin and Munch find that Holly deliberately injured herself to get out of gym (problem #1, we now have psychological issues that need to be addressed… but won’t be.). Benson and Stabler then interview the nurse to see if she thinks the injuries were an accident and the nurse says no. What they do find out is that Holly had been injuring herself for the past three weeks to get out of gym class. They also meet a boy on Dobbins’ lacrosse team named Kevin Wilcox, who reveals that Mark Dobbins is the gym teacher and a substitute is filling in for him right then because he had a game that night, which gives them a reason to suspect Dobbins.

After much prodding by Dr. Hendrix… who again ignores the pictures, Holly tearfully claims that the man who victimized her was family friend, Mark Dobbins. Benson and Stabler arrest Dobbins in the middle of a football game. Later they interrogate him and find that his activities includes hosting sleepovers and a summer camp in The Poconos for girls, and teaching gym… you know, things that normal family men do…

Dobbins was among many who were interviewed, and when he reveals his assumption that Swift is dead, the detectives think they have further proof of his guilt… circumstantial at best, but that’s apparently all you need in this ‘reality.’ Stabler suggests that he killed Laura and raped Holly and his own daughters, and he finds the notion so repulsive that he demands a lawyer for any further questioning… after both physically and verbally abusing him to the point that any normal cop would have been on desk duty AT THE VERY LEAST, as a result.

News of the victimization of Holly gets around as well as that of the missing girl (Thanks to Holly’s parents), and other soccer moms come forward,  thus preventing Dobbins from making bail. All the girls tell the same story as Holly Purcell, which seems to give the detectives an open and shut case… despite not looking into how the girls found out about Holly’s victimization in the first place which would have been a key piece of info in properly vetting their testimony… but who cares about police work? We’ve got assumptions, the testimony of an emotionally distraught child that’s in fear for her life, and circumstantial evidence, so we’re good.

The problem… and another tell-tale sigh of how the case is flimsy is that nothing they say reveals the whereabouts of Laura Swift or any other girl who’s missing, nor does it soothe Holly’s fears, which is typical, but still should have been something they look at twice… I mean it’s just a man with a family whose life we’re ruining, right?

When the news media gets word of the spree of molestation at the school Cragen tries to keep as much info from them as he can… again, without asking where they got the info in the first place! During the search of the Dobbins’ basement, Julie Dobbins pleads her husband’s innocence, insisting that she was an eyewitness to the activities at the household, which Stabler misinterprets as an absurd sexual fetish, and chastises her so severely, that it almost seems like he’s ready to attack her. Yay!!!! More overacting from Stabler that shows that he has no business wearing a police badge and should have been discharged long ago. This scene alone would have had him out walking the streets, but hey this is good drama right? So we’ll give it a pass…

Realizing that he may be a danger to the public, Stabler tries to calm down… key word; ‘tries.’

Benson suggests that he goes home to his family, but he’s torn between his family troubles and helping Holly (… no wonder his family eventually leaves him). On the way out though, Fin finds that Mark has a sealed arrest record from the Erie County District Attorney, which he explains, despite advice from his attorney not to do so. Due to some circumstantial evidence by a teenage prostitute and a “drunken cop,” (Oh great… more inept police work) Mark was falsely arrested (although the charges were subsequently dismissed), and revealed that he had to forge documents indicating he was allowed to work with children. Novak thinks she can use this to get a confession from him on the whereabouts of Swift, but he still adamantly denies raping or killing anybody. At which point she threatens to ask the judge for the maximum sentence.

I’ll stop right there. The show took a nose dive when Novak joined the cast. I always thought that she was way overzealous and went too often on her own opinion and values instead of actual evidence and fact. Nothing gave me greater viewing pleasure than watching the episodes where she crashed and burned. She was a poor ADA at best and it really shows here…

But I digress…

Stabler tries to break himself away from the case in order to maintain (smirk) his sanity, but Benson insists that he should help Holly prepare for Mark’s trial, and this is where things get really interesting!!!!

Before he even has a chance to get started, she breaks down again and reveals that Mark is completely innocent. She cries that she doesn’t want to get in trouble… not because she sent an innocent man to jail, not because she’s ruined the lives of close friends, no no no, it’s because she doesn’t want to get in trouble… yeah there was a kid that was well raised, no remorse whatsoever… just fear. (Yeah I know she was a victim and in fear of her life, but that’s not an excuse for destroying someone else’s) Moving on…

When one of his other alleged victims reveals that her mother pressured her into accusing him of sexual abuse… nothing happens… We see no repercussions on the two soccer moms that blatantly exposed their children to something that no one that age should be exposed to and then made them lie to city officials thus wasting police time while the true killer/molester still roamed free. No DSS involvement, no civil suite, no charges filed, NOTHING except for Stabler overacting in their general direction.

Then Dr. Hendrix comes out and with a sheepish look on her face said that no one could have seen this coming… except for… you know… a psychiatrist who is trained to work in cases like this with years of experience who had the evidence right in front of her damn face, but we’ll get into that later!

Stabler rushes to get Novak to drop the charges and set him free. As the trial case is dismissed, the best line ever, which goes to show Novak’s own incompetence is uttered by the defense…

“We’re stunned that the people charged my client with the heinous crimes without proper investigation!”

THANK YOU!!! Finally someone said it!!!

After his exoneration hearing Larry reveals he and Sonya (Holly’s wonderful parents) may have been responsible for inadvertently creating the persecution… and that’s it. No repercussions for the false accusation, no civil suite, no reparations, just a half-assed apology which turned into Larry yelling at Dobbins.

Even with the presence of her parents, Holly is still afraid to reveal who molested her again, totally understandable, but it’s a lot more difficult to feel sorry for her at this point… Hendrix suggests that the family take her on vacation in an attempt to make her feel safe, but it doesn’t lead to the whereabouts of Laura Swift. This is so stupid that even NY’s most incompetent detectives object!

After re-examining Holly’s artwork, Hendrix suddenly realizes that she made a grave error in her analysis… if you can even call it that. She notices that the uniform of the person that she suspected was not a coach’s athletic uniform, but that of a student, particularly, a lacrosse captain. She actually admits her own incompetence… After a thorough and very well thought out review of the other pictures…

“Oh no… I assumed that was Mark Dobbins, because I accepted what Holly told me without even considering that it could be someone else.”

Like you know, ANY REMOTELY COMPETENT PSYCHIATRIST WOULD HAVE EFFING DONE!!!

Holly finally reveals that she was molested by Kevin Wilcox, who is arrested on the spot. During his interrogation, Stabler and Fin reveal that their evidence against him is solid and threaten him, unless he reveals the whereabouts of the girl he killed. After Wilcox’s confession to Holly’s rape and Laura Swift’s murder, Fin joins other officers to exhume Laura’s buried body in College Point.

On his way home, Benson stalls him so she can direct him to his family who are throwing a birthday party for him at his desk. Unfortunately the happiness of the moment is shattered, when the Dobbins couple reveal that Chestnut Academy dismissed Mark, for forging his letter destroyed his integrity which could be an endangerment for the students (UGGGGH!!!). As a result of this, he will never get another teaching career and he and his wife are selling the house and moving upstate with his in-laws. Stabler rightly takes the blame thinking that this wouldn’t never happen if they could have realized who Holly’s abuser was (though Hendrix shares a ton of the blame here).

Mark agrees, and walks away. Benson reminds him that his family is still there to celebrate his birthday… for now…

So now you have the Episode… what’s wrong with it? Nothing. This is actually one of my favorite episodes!

We’ve all heard real-life stories about people being falsely accused of child sexual abuse and what happens to people as a result. Even if they’re proved innocent in the end, by that time they’ve been put through the wringer both financially and emotionally, and their lives have been utterly wrecked. Once a person is labeled a sex offender, it’s nearly impossible to get rid of it, ever. It will be on their record and even if they can find a way to get it expunged, they will never get away from it entirely.

This episode stands out in that there was no doubt Holly Purcell had been sexually abused; the question was, who did it. Naturally everyone wants to nab the perpetrator, and in their determination, they press Holly almost as hard as they would a toughened criminal. This is something that is completely inappropriate to do with a child and… again, that any half-competent psychiatrist would have known better! Since there is no doubt that the abuse definitely happened, it never occurs to anyone that Holly’s genuine fear of her abuser’s threat to kill her if she talked, could cause her to lie about his identity. Which is something that would have come up if the police handing the case had been anything resembling competent.

This episode wonderfully leaves the viewer feeling everyone’s pain and remorse from the entire ugly affair. Coach and Mrs. Dobbins have totally lost the life they’d struggled to rebuild after a prior nonsense charge.

Holly, who pointed at Dobbins to get SVU off her back, never dreaming they’d go after him with murder in their eyes… though this one get’s harder to feel sorry for by the end… and wrongly…  Dr. Hendrix, who didn’t look at the forest before focusing on individual trees. How she got away with her license from this episode is beyond me, but whatever.

Elliot totally shot off his mouth at Mrs. Dobbins when searching their house after arresting her husband… which should have cost him his job…  And Casey, who should have been the cool head here if any one person was, wasn’t.

These protectors of the innocent and law-abiding completely lost their perspective because there was no question the crime had occurred. As a result they rushed to misjudgment, and now they have to live with having wrecked some of the very lives they were entrusted to protect. THIS IS NOT HOW PROFESSIONAL LAW ENFORCEMENT ACTS!!! We’ve seen this idiots dole out their cowboy justice before and get away with it, but here we seen what actually happens when this is how business is conducted.

My only complaint about this episode is that Hendrix and Novak weren’t there for the final ribbing out by the Dobbins. They deserved it as much as Stabler.

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6 thoughts on “Good Story Writing Inadvertently Reveals Incompetence

  1. uriahheep111 says:

    One great task in writing is to be as straight on facts as you need to. And characters should be believeable in every way. Not an easy task.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. James,
    I thoroughly enjoyed this piece and agree it is an example of poor writing, but I think it illustrates something else as well. I have been a fan of crime fiction ever since the age of 8, when my father took me to see “The Maltese Falcon” paying in a revival movie house. I’ve also read all of the greats in the genre, such as Hammett, Chandler, Ellroy, Ross McDonald, John D. MacDonald, etc. I’ve read Christie as well but think she is highly overrated both in plotting and character.

    In the early days of TV I was drawn to the proliferation of one hour crime dramas, but shortly got bored. One hour is entirely too little time to develop a good story, especially with commercial breaks. I watch none of the popular police dramas that are on TV because perforce they cannot present an interesting enough story and must rely on character quirkiness and gimmickry. I would suggest therefore that it is a problem of the TV genre and its time limitations.

    This is not to say that TV doesn’t produce some classical works in the genre. This works are usually in the genre of presenting one case for an entire season. I would cite “The Killing”, “Fargo”. “True Detective” and “Bosch” as recent examples. Being able to in effect present ten episode as a “novel” makes for much more interesting writing and allows good writers the freedom to work their craft. Writing for one hour police procedurals, in and of itself encourages writing shortcuts and mediocrity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • StCyril says:

      The Maltese Falcon… classic, total classic! If you’re into crime drama, might I recommend BBC’s Sherlock Holmes starring Benedict Cumberbatch? As a fan of the original Conan Doyle stories, I can honestly say it’s a remarkable modern re-telling that sticks very close to the source material.

      Like

  3. fredreeca says:

    I used to enjoy this show….but like you…the characters have fallen off….among MANY other issues!! Totally agree with you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. WoW. I used to love SVU but I forgot why. Now I Know why. The same thing is happened or happening to Elementary (not sure why Sherlock came back from London or why he came back with that girl who vanished mid season) I get why they thought they needed to Balance out the show with a strong female character like Lucy Liu as Watson but the dynamic doesn’t quite work between them and Johnny Miller- can’t quite make much out of him… The British version is far better.

    Like

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