During Color of Change’s Sundance panel “Looking Forward: The Future of Crime Television”, Terence Paul Winter, executive producer & writer of The Rookie; Sunil Nayar, former writer/showrunner of All Rise; and Melody Cooper, writer & story editor of Law & Order SVU unpacked a topic that is impacting storytelling on television more now than ever: the portrayal of policing and the criminal justice system in this country.
As the reckoning of social justice and authentic representation in Hollywood continues to forge ahead and fight an uphill battle for systemic change the writers talked about the changing landscape when it comes to storytelling on their shows. After George Floyd’s murder, the landscape has changed drastically in terms of how to portray stories involving the police, the court system and justice. It’s a struggle that has been ignored for far too long and change is slowly yet surely being made.
Moderated by Color Of Change’s Culture & Entertainment Advocacy Director Kristen Marston, the conversation between Winter, Cooper and Nayar was candid and eye-opening as they discussed their experiences while working on TV series. Some of their experiences were good and some of them will make you raise your eyebrows. Either way, the trio is bringing change and being more vocal when it comes to making changes in storytelling on crime series.
For Cooper, she came to SVU as a playwright that leaned heavily into social justice issues — two things that have helped her with authentic storytelling. More than that, she started to get really engaged with the intersection of TV writing and social justice when her brother Chris Cooper was part of the viral video that made headlines when a woman called the cops on him in Central Park while he was minding his own business and bird watching. “This is a chance for me to put my money where my mouth is,” said Cooper, whose own experiences and talent aims to affect change.
For Winter, he said that one thing that is needed in crime series is an honest portrayal of policing and the criminal justice system. With the work they do on their shows, he asks, “What are the effects of what we do and how does it affect the community at large?” In other words, how do the characters of their shows and their experiences impact what we see in the real world.
He uses Morgan Freeman’s role in Angel Has Fallen and Dennis Haysbert on 24 as an example saying that, although it wasn’t the sole reason Barack Obama was elected as president — but it didn’t hurt.
That said, Winter points out if crime series like SVU, The Rookie and All Rise tell honest stories with police, it won’t be so pigeonholed. Everyone has different experiences with police or the justice system — so why not put that on display? This is very relevant when police and the justice system treat Black and brown people.
Winter continued to say that maybe if portrayals of the police were honest, people won’t think the treatment of people of color by police will be believed by more people. “We have an opportunity to be part of the solution,” said Winter.
For Nayar, he had a moment where he was questioning what he was doing when he first worked on CSI: Miami where each episode ended with a white man shooting somebody. “What am I putting on TV?” Nayar asked. He began to reevaluate what he was doing and things became even more clear during the reckoning — specifically with his experience on All Rise.
Nayar, along with many people of color on staff, stepped down from their post at the CBS crime drama All Rise when there were disputes as to how showrunner Greg Spottiswood was handling race and gender. The show is led by a Black woman and the cast includes a majority of people of color. “It opened my eyes,” Nayar said the in regards to his experience with the show.
During the panel, he said, “The idea that you can be criticized for being aware is so weird.” Nayar further unpacked the divisiveness of the conversation about diversity on series — particularly crime series. He said that it’s always “a conversation that exists versus the conversation that was.”
Nayar, who has also worked on the hyper-inclusive limited series The Red Line, continued to say when it comes to the subject matter of this nature. In particular, he said that when issues that impact marginalized communities are in the right hands, it’s a good thing, but when it’s in the wrong hands, “you’re fighting an uphill battle.”
Cooper talked about how organizations like Color of Change help bring this change and fight the battle. With SVU as her first show, Cooper said she was one of the only marginalized voices in the writers’ room which makes it more difficult to speak up. By having the organization engage with the SVU team, it helped bolster Cooper’s voice when it came to authentic storytelling. She said that with Color of Change backing her, she felt empowered to speak on things more loudly.
If anything, the panel aligned with the ongoing “Representation Matters” movement — but with the portrayal of Black and brown stories in a crime series, it is even more relevant. It’s not just about ticking boxes and having them present in the room as a token, it’s about, as Winter said, “giving them agency”.