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Law and Order: Episode “Melting Pot” Analysis

Introduction

The commonly used term ‘mass media’ encompasses numerous institutions and individuals that differ in method and purpose. In general usage, the term has been considered to define groups who make up the communications profession in both the entertainment and news industries. The specific role of the media in society is often debated but what is not argued is that access to information is essential to the health of a democratic society. Newspapers, radio, television and the internet allow citizens the opportunity to make informed choices and serves as part of the checks and balances of a society, a ‘fourth branch of government.’ The media also serves to entertain as the line drawn between news efforts to amuse and sources of entertainment attempting to inform is crossed continuously. Media acts as the link between people’s personal lives to events outside what they encounter in their everyday routine.

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Because of this connection, it serves as an important vehicle in the understanding of how society functions. The media reflects and reports, shaping and defining society at the same time, thus an understanding of these venues of information is vital to the understanding of our civilization itself. However, how one goes about accomplishing this is not as easy as it might seem as there are various different perspectives one might take. David Lodges suggests that there are six perspectives one might take to a given media format. These include personal, historical, technical, ethical, cultural and critical. While one of these perspectives might lead one to different conclusions than another, it is largely true that directors and producers remain focused on communicating a basic idea that is relatively consistent throughout the presentation which strongly suggest a specific conclusion. By applying these six perspectives to a single episode of the popular television show Law and Order, this tendency to communicate a basic shared idea might be discovered.

Analysis

The specific episode of Law and Order to be analyzed for this discussion, “Melting Pot,” originally aired on February 16, 2007. This episode was selected because of the strong messages it contains in a number of different areas. The plot of this episode begins with the discovery of an actress hanging by the neck in an otherwise barren apartment. Although it appears to be a suicide, there is no note and no evidence of what might have caused the woman to take such drastic action. As the investigation progresses, it is discovered that the woman was happily married with two young children and likely did not commit suicide. Further investigation leads to two primary suspects. The first of these is an illegal worker from Colombia who was in the woman’s apartment that morning. His motive is to keep the woman quiet regarding his position.

Although he admits to having been in her room that day and to having laid his hands on her in order to keep her quiet, his description of the activity that took place indicates that the woman accidentally hit her hand during their struggle over the phone and went unconscious. This frightened the worker and he left, but she was still alive. The second suspect is a sound engineer who had been working on the woman’s latest film in which she had included video of a Muslim woman masturbating while listening to a man reciting the Koran. The sound engineer is a Muslim and therefore is presumed to have been incited to murder by her inflammatory film. The plot twists around these two men, first indicating they are guilty and then finding they must be innocent and then going back to guilty again before it is finally discovered that the sound engineer truly didn’t have anything to do with her murder and the illegal worker was protecting his boss as a means of protecting the company that provided so many of his friends and other immigrants with the means to support their families. In the end, it is revealed that the boss killed the woman as a means of

The first perspective one must consider in analyzing a text is the personal perspective. This is essential because it provides one with a sense of how the presentation was received, which might have an effect on how the various images and symbols are interpreted. My own perspective is that of the dominant culture. I really have no idea what it might be like to be accused of something based mostly on the color of my skin. I can gain some sense of this process in remembering the various ways in which I have been expected to perform based upon someone’s assessment of my physical appearance, but this only provides an approximation, not a true empathy. It was very easy for me to believe that the Muslim sound engineer might have killed the woman and difficult to give up the idea that he didn’t.

Even when he decided he’d accept the punishment and go to jail for nine years instead of going to trial because he was sure he would not get an impartial jury, I was convinced he was pulling a fast one to get the attorneys’ sympathy. In retrospect, this seems to reinforce the ideas he was expressing, that in post-9/11 America, a person of Arab descent practicing the Muslim religion would not be capable of receiving a fair trail in any sense of the word. It was not as easy for me to believe that the illegal immigrant killed the woman, perhaps because he was very young and seemed very innocent. However, I had an easier time believing that he was protecting someone else than that the wealthy white boss had anything to do with it. At the end of the episode, even though the sound engineer and the illegal immigrant both had strong motives for wanting to kill the lady, it turned out that the guy without a strong motive killed her. I struggled with this concept and still have difficulty accepting the idea that he killed her simply because he thought he’d be able to get away with it.

A historical perspective requires some background knowledge into the history of the major issues involved in a given presentation. There is a great deal of history involved in this particular episode as it plays strongly on the issues arising from 9/11. One of the contributing factors behind this plot is a sudden influx in the late 1900s of southern immigrants. The fundamental reason for the flood of immigration from Latin America, specifically Mexico, is the disintegration of the Mexican economy predominantly resulting from free-trade strategies employed by the North American Free Trade Agreement and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

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The rampant corruption within the Mexican government has also contributed significantly to the collapse of the Mexican economy. “Due to IMF policies regarding Mexico, its economic output dropped 33 percent in the past two decades” (Small, 2005). During this period, its foreign debt rose 359 percent because of widespread looting of the national coffers. These factors caused the “collapse of all areas of productive economic activity and employment, is the primary driver of the flood of emigrants desperate to leave Mexico, to find some livelihood for themselves and their families in the United States” (Small, 2005). This influx is directly addressed within the Law and Order episode as the immigrant tells the story of how the farm he worked on collapsed, taken over by drug lords, and he fled to America to try to earn money for his mother back home.

The episode was also filmed six years after the terrorist attacks that took place on September 11, 2001. On that day, four U.S. airliners were hijacked by suicide bombers working for al-Qaeda and turned into flying bombs. “Two of the planes struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, igniting fires that destroyed the 110-storey landmarks, while a third crashed into the west wing of the Pentagon in Washington. A fourth plane, which was believed to be heading for the White House, crashed in a field 120 kilometres southeast of Pittsburgh” (What happened, 2009). This history also plays a significant role in understanding the cultural climate in which the story takes place.

For both of the primary suspects in the crime involved in the Law and Order episode, issues of culture play a key role in understanding how things occur in the way that they do. The prevailing anger and resentment against those of Latin descent within the city plays a key role in causing the immigrant to defend his white boss just as the resentment and anger built up against Muslims following 9/11 convinces the sound engineer that he will never be able to get a fair trial. It is thus in the case of the Muslim sound engineer that the cultural element comes into strongest focus. Discrimination, no matter how it can be rationalized, causes the victimization of certain minority groups. It leads to malicious stereotyping and generalizations regarding race, religion, gender, etc. which civil liberty loving Americans have decided is morally reprehensible but still act upon. Had the terrorists not been of obvious Arab descent, the profiling of airplane passengers and the widespread fear of this particular ethnic group would not be a matter of discussion (Polakow-Suransky, 2005). Whether official or unofficial, the sound engineer’s understanding of the American legal system reflects the prevalent modes of thinking in which Arabs are considered suspicious characters regardless of the context (Hall, 2004). Law officers are quick to label him a suspect because of his religion while he remains strongly aware of the cultural climate in which a jury of his ‘peers’ would be able to see nothing but their own suspicion and blame.

However, the Arab is also convicted to some degree through the technical aspects of the episode not only in the story line, but in the production. Within the plot of the story, it emerges that the controversial film produced by the murdered woman had been rendered unusable by the sound mixers. Although there were two of them, only the Arab sound mixer was ever suspected of having caused this issue. The portrayal of this character is also somewhat adversarial as he is immediately defensive when the police approach him and frequently portrayed in lighting that darkens half of his face, as if he were hiding something. Social scientists have long identified the media as one of either bringing about social change by pointing out the social problems that are contributing to a declining society or of bolstering existing ideologies and social structures (Viswanath & Demers 1999).

In this portrayal, the impressions of the audience regarding the sound engineer will depend heavily upon how they originally felt about the Arab nation. Those who concur with the general impression held at the time in New York will automatically judge him as contentious, overly defensive and suspiciously guarded as the camera flashes back and forth between him and those interrogating him. However, direct references to the tendency of the rest of the community to place the Arab in the position of the scapegoat as well as consistently neutral color schemes used in the shots in which he is featured attempt to soothe these impressions while the storyline emphasizes the degree to which he is wrongly accused and the effects this has on his personal life.

There are strong ethical issues involved in the episode as well, such as the ethical questions involved in the type of business run by the white boss and the relative merits of alerting immigration services about the nature of this business. The white boss in this episode runs a very successful construction company that makes its profit by hiring a majority of illegal immigrants at a fraction of the cost it would take to hire legal citizens. Despite this, his workers see him as a benefactor because he provides them with work and money that they can send back to their families at home. They look to him for guidance and support, as when the immigrant suspect runs to him for advice on what to do about the woman who was lying unconscious in her office apartment.

“With the continuously surfacing scandals in corporate America, the idea that any form of ethics exists in business is suspect. We are also seeing similar situations within the ranks of government and religious leaders” (Arcement, 2007). This is seen as the attorney takes it upon himself to turn in the construction company to the immigration authorities as a means of shutting it down and thus neutralizing the reason why the immigrant was keeping quiet. As the show finishes, it is revealed that the immigrant was keeping quiet about the white boss’s involvement in the woman’s murder as a means of protecting the jobs of his cousins as well as to protect all the other immigrants that were working for the company as the only means of securing an income for the family. Although this action is called into question because of all the harm it causes to the families and individuals that will be directly affected, the attorney determines it is justified to establish justice over the powerful man who continues to take advantage of immigrants and perhaps would continue to commit such crimes.

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There are a few critical comments that must be made about the show. The first of these is that the show seems to be strongly driven by its plot with little time devoted or available for any kind of significant character development. While this is considered to be a strength by some critics (Holcomb, 2008), it has a tendency to reduce the characters to caricatures and make some of the drama seem melodramatic. Another problem discovered with the show is the message it sends that all cases can be solved within a relatively short period of time. The show is deliberately structured to cover the investigation by police detectives during the first half of the hour-long program and then reveals the prosecutorial element to end with a solved crime and punished criminal. There is little or no carry-over from one show to another which makes the show appeal to first-time viewers as there is no need to catch up with the story, but this also limits the show’s ability to work into greater development of issues or characters. While some characters carry from one episode to another, they don’t seem to share the kind of in-depth working relationships they should have if they’ve been working together for long periods of time. There is evidence of suspicion, personal agenda and distance between the characters that is almost equal to these elements expressed between the regular characters and the ‘guests’.

Conclusion

By analyzing the episode using each of the six different perspectives, Law and Order is seen to address controversial and important issues within the greater community. By analyzing the episode from a personal perspective, it is possible to discover the various ways in which I myself have fallen victim to the stereotypical thinking. Understanding the history of the area and the people involved helps to inform the viewer of the various sentiments that are brought forward from a cultural perspective. This analysis also helps to inform one of the technical elements of the episode that serve to convey these types of ideas as well. In some ways, these technical elements support the ideas suggested by other perspectives, while other technical elements suggest something different, such as the use of neutral colors to prevent too harsh a judgment on the Muslim character. Ethical questions brought forward through the episode are introduced but not actually explored and thus are unable to spark any real consideration. As this perspective suggests, there are plenty of elements within the show to be analyzed from a critical perspective.

References

Arcement, Billy Med. (2007). “Ethics—The Conscious of Decision Making” Self Growth.com. Web.

Hall, C. Margaret. (2004). “Public Roots of Sociological Practice: Social Intelligence.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. San Francisco, CA. Web.

Holcomb, Brian. (2008)> “Law and Order: Season Eighteen.” Slant. Web.

Polakow-Suransky. (2005). “Racial Profiling Goes Beyond Black and White.” What Matters in America. Gary Goshgarian (Ed.). New York: Longman.

Small, Dennis. (2005). “What’s Behind the ‘Hispanic Immigration Crisis?” EIR Economics. Web.

Viswanath, K. & Demers, David, (Eds.) (1999). Mass Media, Social Control, and Social Change: A Macrosocial Perspective. Ames: Iowa State University.

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“What happened?” (2007). CBC News In Depth. Web.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, November 22). Law and Order: Episode “Melting Pot” Analysis. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/law-and-order-episode-melting-pot-analysis/

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StudyCorgi. (2021, November 22). Law and Order: Episode “Melting Pot” Analysis. https://studycorgi.com/law-and-order-episode-melting-pot-analysis/

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1. StudyCorgi. "Law and Order: Episode “Melting Pot” Analysis." November 22, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/law-and-order-episode-melting-pot-analysis/.


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