Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly · SVU · Live PD

Plus: copaganda in the Dick Wolf-iverse, and AFI DOCS reveals its 2020 slate.

The crime

Robert Sylvester Kelly’s serial abuse of underage women, for decades; the willingness of Kelly’s inner circle and fans to avert their gazes from the abuse — until Kelly ran out of money.

The story

I remember being struck by something Jim DeRogatis — author of Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly, and one of the only reporters who actually reported out the allegations over a period of two decades — said in a talking-head interview during Surviving R. Kelly, namely that it was one thing for him to chase down, corroborate, and publish Kelly’s victims’ stories in print, and entirely another for people to see and hear from those women on camera. DeRogatis sounded rueful as he said, basically, that television is an order of magnitude more powerful at (literally) broadcasting a truth than he.

But he’s pretty damn good at it, and while Soulless isn’t essential if you’ve seen either season of Surviving R. Kelly, DeRogatis’s briskly paced and thorough account is significant, for two reasons, the first of which is a variation on the point made by DeRogatis himself: it took a really long time, an unconscionably long time, for American culture to take the allegations against Kelly seriously. It was a source of gossip, or a big joke on the late-night sketch shows, or one more eccentricity of a powerful figure — a kink, not rape. Kelly (almost surely a victim himself during his childhood…another aspect of the story that few cared to unpack) claimed various charges and lawsuits stemmed from attempts by women scorned to extort him, and because accepting that specious explanation is easier than believing women or paying any attention to women of color, or deleting Kelly’s work from critical esteem, that’s what happened.

Soulless is an accounting for all of us, then, in how we hear survivors’ stories and how well we listen to women of color especially. But it’s also an account of responsible journalism. DeRogatis is scrupulously transparent in his tracing of sources, shielding of those who haven’t agreed to go on the record, and sharing of credit for research or guidance. Almost to a fault, in fact; a couple of times, I muttered aloud that “we don’t need your life story, DeRo,” and in certain instances — the recitation of his punk-band bona fides, say — we don’t, but as we watch the case unfold from over his shoulder, it becomes clear that that context and transparency are critical in positioning DeRogatis as a trustworthy narrator. His prior work experience, his musical taste, where the Sun-Times was in its ownership life cycle are all important to the overall picture of who you’re dealing with, and in a story like this one and like Catch & Kill, it isn’t just about Harvey Weinstein or R. Kelly. It’s also about why the story wasn’t one for however long, and who tried to rewrite or bury it, and how it finally was told, in gasps swimming upstream. I can’t think of a more important time for doggedness in pursuit of silenced stories.

I gave it four stars on Goodreads; it’s really a 4.5, and I understand why other reading might be a priority right now, but this is highly recommended. — SDB

The murder of George Floyd has, among other things, prompted cultural critics to examine how cop shows — scripted and non- — center the police as heroes in their narratives. Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk pointed out last week that “Cops Are Always The Main Characters,” noting not just the sheer volume of cop-centric shows on TV but that “a cop’s point of view has become the default way to frame national unrest, including institutional and systemic racism, the capitalist urge to prioritize property over human life, and a political system that benefits those already in power.” A few days later, Law & Order: SVU showrunner Warren Leight did a podcast interview with the Hollywood Reporter in which he admitted that, “collectively,” cop shows are “miscontributing to society,” although he made sure to note that SVU “is what he wishes the NYPD were; it’s not meant to be propaganda for all cops.”

(Here’s where I’d intended to link to a Marie Claire interview with Judith Harrison, whom NYPD appointed a year ago to “overhaul” the Special Victims Division, but I can’t find it on MC’s site anywhere, and it’s probably just as well — I don’t think this is entirely the interviewer’s fault, given how constrained Harrison no doubt was by 1PP in her answers, but it does kind of read like an interview with a head coach in a high-school paper.

MC: What excites you about the future of the division?

JH: I’m excited that I get to serve a police department that says, “You know what? We can take criticism and we can make changes and move forward.”

Oh, is that what NYPD can do. …Look, Harrison’s in an impossible position entirely aside from recent events, because she’s having to do this cheese-ish “Real-Life Olivia Benson” clickbait PR to cover for the institution’s shortcomings (and the bylined Megan DiTrolio’s choices aren’t any better), but if you have the Summer 2020 issue in your home, you can skip this one. The April issue’s first-person piece about a woman whose story was the headline “ripped from” for a recent episode is worth a look, though, in case you didn’t feel cynical enough about the genre.)

Over on the “non-fiction” side, several pairs of critical eyes turned towards Live PD at the end of last week, as the A&E ratings juggernaut and shameless copaganda instrument prepared to “celebrate” its 300th episode. Reality Blurred’s Andy Dehnart called out reality TV generally, and especially Live PD and COPS, for its racism-vs.-ratings trade-offs, adding,

And Cops creates a culture where people, especially white people like me watching from the safety of our living rooms, see police officers tackling black people and other people of color as normal, as acceptable, as evidence that they are keeping us safe.

This criticism, and broader accusations of badge-humping (not least by us), have dogged Live PD from the beginning, so when my planned Primetimer topic for the week, Epix’s Helter Skelter, got pushed, I figured I’d watch Live PD’s 300th ep instead, to see how — or whether — they’d meet this historic moment…and, I admit, so that I could read Dehnart’s thoughts with a more informed eye. But the network chose NOT to meet the moment, pulling new episodes from the schedule on Friday afternoon. Of course, nobody thought to kibosh the marathon of Live PD reruns that continued all day Friday, and A&E replaced the episode with Live Rescue, which is a distinction without a difference IMO.

COPS, meanwhile, got DK’ed by the Paramount Network. Set to start its thirty-third (!) season tonight, COPS didn’t just get its premiere delayed, says Variety’s Michael Schneider. The show got disappeared entirely:

Paramount Network hasn’t yet commented on the fate of Monday’s “Cops” episode, but its program schedule no longer shows it airing as planned at 10 p.m. ET; “Ghostbusters” is now scheduled there instead. Paramount made the shift over a week ago, as “Cops” also didn’t air this past Monday in its normal spot. And Paramount appears to not have future plans for “Cops” on the network. Already, the show is no longer mentioned anywhere on the channel’s website.

I’m not against the show/network deciding COPS’s time has passed, but I also don’t think the Don Draper “you won’t believe how much this never happened” approach is helpful here. I have watched — and, in the past, enjoyed — many hours of COPS, and Live PD, and World’s Wildest Police Chases, and every single Law & Order including the craptastic Trial By Jury, so when I say that I don’t think us quitting these shows, or the shows quitting themselves, cold turkey is the answer, that might sound like a justification for continuing to watch them. And it may be that, partly! But mostly I think just throwing cop shows in the garbage seems like an easy solution, while teaching us nothing about how to avoid making garbage — or accepting garbage as a “document,” versus paper with pizza grease on it — that reinforces institutional racism.

Maybe you also guiltily watched the L&O “L.A. triptych” on WEtv a few days ago and found it hard to enjoy; maybe, at the same time, you noticed some of the fucked-up things it reflected about the “justice” that money and white-guy-ness buy, in a different way from before. Or maybe you’re done with cop procedurals for the foreseeable. I’d love to hear about it, whichever way. — SDB

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If you would like to hear from the stars of Dirty John S2 on what drew them to the Brodericks’ story and how they prepared, here’s a short interview with Amanda Peet and Christian Slater. It’s actually kind of surprising to me that Peet had never heard the story, but then, I often have to remind myself that civilians aren’t steeped in these cases.

Dr. Marcia Chatelain and I are talking about Betty and Dan (and Laurie Bembenek!) in the next episode of The Blotter Presents. — SDB

The AFI DOCS 2020 festival has revealed its full slate. Passes are on sale now for the film fest, which starts June 17 and will take place entirely online. I’d love to hear from you guys which ones you’re looking forward to; I’m eager to see the Roy Cohn doc (which also airs on HBO in a couple of weeks, and which I’m hoping to discuss on the podcast); Coded Bias, which examines “issues with” facial recognition programs; Freedia Got A Gun; and Women In Blue, about “the relationship between gender, race and violence in an American institution that has long been male dominated.” The specific institution referred to here…is the Minneapolis Police Department. I’m hoping for a press pass because I’m cheap, but I will get spendy. Any of you planning to “attend”? — SDB

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Tuesday on Best Evidence: Scott Peterson; Chris Hansen; and Citizen as protest social network? Can’t wait to see what else Eve’s got for us.

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