Thursday, May 25, 2017

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit: “Sanctuary” and “American Dream” (NBC-Universal, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s season finale of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit — closing out its 18th year and sixth without original series co-lead Christopher Meloni — was a two-part show called “Sanctuary” (two episodes, both written by Rick Eid and, I believe, Judith Leight, but only the first directed by Law and Order hand Jean de Segonzac) which was quite effective even though the writers and directors seemed to be going out of their way to cram in as many topical references as possible so they could achieve both a “ripped from the headlines” feel and some fashionable (in West and East Coast circles, anyway) digs against the anti-immigrant fervor and racism unleashed by the Trump Administration (though the Orangeman’s name isn’t mentioned once in the actual script). The show begins with a break-in at Samra’s middle-Eastern restaurant, in which the principals are a legally resident émigré family from Syria but much of their staff is undocumented and therefore in mortal fear of being caught up in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid. The Samra family that owns the restaurant consists of a husband, Kumar; his wife, Maya; and their two daughters, one of whom is Lela (Melanie Chandra). Kumar and one of his daughters are killed in the attack; Lela is raped but survives and Maya also survives. 

It turns out there was another Middle Easterner there, Maya’s brother Yusef Massad (Nik Sadhnani), who sneaked in the back door and witnessed the crime but did nothing to stop it. Yusef is worried not only because he’s undocumented but also he’s Gay, and his fear is not only will he be deported either to the family’s native Syria or to a refugee camp in Turkey, but once there he will be found out and be murdered by some twit who thinks that by knocking off a Queer he’s doing the holy work of Allah. Yusef lasts long enough to testify before a grand jury and allow assistant district attorney Rafael Barba (Raúl Esparza) to get an indictment against the one person of the three assailants the cops have been able to find, Hector Ramirez, who used to work as a busboy at Samra’s until the Samra family had to let him go because he is an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador. Alas, Yusef gets tired of being holed up in his apartment with Detective Dominick Carisi, Jr. (Peter Scanavino) essentially baby-sitting him to keep him safe for the actual trial. He insists on going out for cigarettes to the local bodega — and while there he runs into a group of protesters (throughout the episode there are protesters from both sides of the immigration debate — hard-core Trumpists with signs like “Lock Him Up!” and pro-immigrant groups with rainbow-colored signs with legends like “Immigrants Are People Too” — and at one point the police have to come between the rival groups before they assault each other) and a batch of ICE agents who take him into custody. The ICE personnel have the same contemptuous attitude towards the New York Police Department as most federal agents have towards local law enforcement in Dick Wolf’s crime shows, and by the time the SVU cops find out where Yusef was being held the plane deporting him to the Middle East has already taken off. 

Ramirez is being represented by a hard-core immigration attorney, Naomi Ziegler (a powerful heavy-set actress named Meredith Holzman with a striking resemblance to the singer Adele), who totally buys his alibi that he was with his wife and their two daughters the night of the murders, and refuses even to consider the cops’ offer of lenience if he’ll name the two other people who participated in the crime. Then Ramirez is held hostage by two Middle Easterners who try to force the information out of him at gunpoint — the police pick off one of them and arrest the other — and Ramirez only “turns” when detective Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish) threatens to have child protective services called in to take the kids away and Lt. Olivia Benson (series star Mariska Hargitay, displaying the annoying schoolmarmishness that has crept into her performances here since she aged and Meloni left) threatens to call ICE and have her deported if she doesn’t admit that, no, her husband wasn’t with her all night — he didn’t come home until 2 a.m. and there was blood on his clothes. The other two crooks turn out to be Trump-influenced white supremacist types, one of whom is named Cole (ironically also the villain’s name in the rerun episode they presented just before this one) and one of whom is Mitch Jenkins (Tyler Elliot Burke), who like Hector is relying on his wife to alibi him. (The page on this show so far is woefully incomplete and inaccurate; it lists Christopher Meloni in the cast, playing his old character of Detective Elliot Stabler, and while it’s not inconceivable that Dick Wolf and his staff could bring Meloni back for a guest appearance on a season-ending episode, it didn’t actually happen, alas.) Ramirez finally turns and agrees to testify against his associates at trial, but is himself murdered by a Middle Easterner before he can do so — thereby ironically raising the chances that the white racists who did the crime could be acquitted. 

Maya tries to bolster the case against the defendants by telling the jury in the trial she actually saw their faces briefly (mostly they were wearing ski masks throughout the whole crime) when they threatened to come back and kill her if she told the police about the crime and their guilt, but when she adds that she told Lt. Benson this weeks before Hector was killed (a lie) the defense calls Benson. Benson tells the truth about the conversation she had with Maya where Maya changed her story — it happened the day after Hector was shot — and it appears the bad guys are going to get away with it after all when Mitch’s wife Carleen (Emma Myles, a good actress in a thankless role), leaned on once again by detective Rollins with the threat of the loss of her child (son Tyler, played by Henry Gagliardi), agrees to testify against her husband. The two men are found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, but there’s a coda in which — again without using the T-word — the cops, including the chief of detectives annoyingly played by Peter Gallagher, and Barba lament that people. who used to keep their racist ideas to themselves now freely and proudly acknowledge them in public because “political changes” make them feel like they now have permission to do so. This was a good SVU, way overwrought in its attempt to do all sides of the immigration issue (including the rivalries between Latin-American and Middle Eastern immigrants) and with a few too many melodramatic plot twists to be sustainable even over a two-hour (actually 84 minutes when the commercials are deducted) running time, and one gets frustrated over whether there will ever be any evidence against the bad guys with the witnesses against them either getting deported, getting killed, or discrediting their stories by perjuring themselves. It’s also yet one more indication of how Dick Wolf, who began Law and Order with the mission of appealing to Right-wing America by blasting the Constitutional protections of due process and saying they were just being used by criminals to get away with things on technicalities, has long since joined the liberal establishment and is constructing stories like this in which the immigrants are (generally) the good guys, and the bad guys are racists, white supremacists and the sorts of people who in real life voted for Trump.