From ‘Law & Order’ to ‘OITNB,’ the changing face of justice on TV

BY CHRIS OSTERNDORF

Here’s a fun question: What do a series of shows about putting people in prison and another show about what it’s like to actually be in prison have in common? Try 33 actors, to begin.

It’s no secret that many big stars got their start on one of the Law & Order iterations. But it’s also interesting to examine how many character actors bounced around the Law & Order universe before finding a home on other TV shows. Case in point, Orange Is the New Black.

This week, Autostraddle published a comprehensive look at the many OITNB cast members and bit players who have appeared in one of the L&O installments, in either a large or small capacity. Taking into account OITNB’s nuanced take on social issues, it’s especially fascinating to compare the roles of many of its actors to the parts they played on L&O, a franchise which has had a pretty complicated relationship with sex, and perhaps an even more complicated relationship with race.  

Unsurprisingly, many members of OITNB’s vast ensemble were fairly stereotypical one-off characters on L&O. That isn’t to say this was the case in all the overlap. For instance, Vicky Jeudy, who plays inmate Janae Watson on Orange, played a cop on an episode of Law & Order: SVU. More common though are the likes of Lea DeLaria, aka Big Boo, who appeared on SVU as a tough strip club bouncer that enjoyed beating up on creepy guys, or Lori Tan Chinn (aka Chang) who popped up on the short-lived Trial By Jury as “Mrs. Park,” whose only line was, “Manicure?” (As it happens, Barbara Rosenblat, who plays Rosa on OITNB, has a scene in the same episode of SVU as DeLaria.) Kate Mulgrew (Red) was even typecast as the “powerful woman” (again) on SVU, playing an Assistant U.S. Attorney at one point.

The difference between the parts these women played on Law & Order and the parts they occupy on OITNB is that the latter gives them the chance to go beyond an initial stereotype, and delve into what’s under that (even Chang got some great lines this year). Mulgrew’s Red may be a powerful woman, which is to say she often fits the stereotype of being cold, calculating, and masculine, but as season two of OITNB demonstrated, she has just as many moments of vulnerability and insecurity as anyone else on the show.

Speaking of powerful women, Lorraine Toussaint, who was unforgettable as this season of OITNB’s resident villain, Vee, did some terrific acting as a recurring defense attorney on the original Law & Order, named Shambala Green. The difference between the two characters is that Vee is pure malice, while Green, although equally intimidating, had a sense of compassion and justice.

But that’s not to say that Vee is any less important of a character. The very fact that she was not only evil, but also intelligent, speaks volumes about OITNB’s representation of black people. If anything, Vee is probably closest to one of the kingpins from The Wire, which was really the first show to portray back criminals not only as human, but also as savvy businessmen; no longer was the image of the faceless “thug” tolerable. Shambala Green is a great character, one who is strong and commanding, but not unlike other images of black women that came before her. But with Vee, Toussaint created a woman as smart as she was evil, and that’s a kind of character we’ve rarely seen.   

The discrepancy between Law & Order and Orange Is the New Black’s representation of Latina women is a little bit more difficult. Jessica Pimentel, who plays Maria Ruiz on OITNB, has been on the original Law & Order, SVU, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, each time in similar roles. In various episodes, she portrays a prison junkie who is HIV positive, a “party girl” named Tina, and a hooker who is literally just credited as “Hooker.” In the episode where she plays Tina, Elizabeth Rodriguez, who is Daya’s mom, Aleida, on OITNB, also shows up. Rodriguez has been on multiple episodes of Law & Order, too, most notably as a Puerto Rican girl from a rough neighborhood. These limited depictions are even more troubling when you consider that the L&O franchise has cast the same Latina actress as a maid again and again in multiple incarnations.

And yet, Selenis Leyva (Gloria on OITNB) has played several non-”Latina only” roles on Law & Order, even landing the recurring part of Detective Rivera on the original version of the show (which she also reprised in an episode of Criminal Intent). The multitude of characters she’s gotten to play resembles that of Michelle Hurst (Miss Claudette in OITNB) who has appeared on the multiple versions of Law & Order as everything from a social worker to a pizza lady.

The space between Leyva’s Detective Rivera, and the characters Pimentel and Ruiz played in their time on L&O, highlights the strength of OITNB’s characterization. On Law & Order, a Latina is either someone at the “bottom rung” of society (e.g. a maid, a sex worker, a prisoner, etc.) or she is a member of the white establishment, ala Detective Rivera. OITNB shows us that neither path in life is that far from the other.

For instance, in the Gloria flashbacks of OITNB’s latest season, we see that she used to be a small business owner, assertive and confident, like we’ve always knew her to be. But we also learn that she was in an abusive relationship. Through a few bad choices, Gloria’s world comes tumbling down, and she finds herself in prison. But abusive relationship and bad choices aside, Gloria and Detective Rivera might not be that different. That’s not to say all Latina women are the same but that both characters are clearly ambitious and talented. At their best, OITNB’s characters remind us, like all great characters do, that nobody is just one thing.

Another major distinction between Law & Order and OITNB is the way they explore victimhood. Natasha Lyonne, who plays Nicky on OITNB, showed up on SVU as a rape victim in a psychiatric ward (Michael Chernus, better known as Piper’s brother Cal, is in that one, too) and Taryn Manning, who plays Pennsatucky, also showed up on SVU, as a victim of child molestation and assault. One of the challenging things about Law & Order, and particularly about SVU, is that they’re more interested in solving a problem than getting to the root of why that problem exists in the first place. Granted, that’s mainly because the L&O franchise are all procedurals, and procedures rely, obviously, on procedure. But that’s why when OITNB takes the time to look at similar topics from multiple angles, it resonates all the more.

Lyonne and Manning both play victims on OITNB—not survivors of sexual abuse like on SVU, but victims of their own vices and a system that’s more interested in punishing than helping. Nicky and Pennsatucky each struggle with drugs in their own way—and for their own reasons. Although they both end up in prison, they couldn’t be less alike, except for their substance abuse. Neither of them are defined by this, but it is a part of they are. OITNB reminds us that not all victims are the same, even though we tend to treat them that way.

A favorite on Orange Is the New Black, Laverne Cox (Sophia) has made appearances on the original Law & Order, as well as SVU, and both of them are entirely worth talking about. On the original, she played a truck stop prostitute named Minnie, the kind of role that’s all too typical for transgender people. But on SVU, she played a gym manager named Candace. The amazing thing about said role? It has nothing to do with her being trans. This stands in stark contrast to several of her other credits, including one on Bored to Death, where she’s simply listed as “Transsexual Prostitute,” or in the movie Bronx Paradise, which has her down as “Hooker” (taking a page out of the Law & Order playbook).

Although Cox has become a kind of spokesperson for the trans community, it’s key to remember that she isn’t only one thing either. OITNB has been applauded (and occasionally criticized) for the way it depicts transness. But the power of Sophia—and of Cox—is that she isn’t just transgender. And even in her early appearance on SVU, you can see her defiance to be told otherwise shining through. Who knows how the role of that gym manager was written, but in her one scene, Cox hinted at a career that demands not to be marginalized.

Finally, many of the men on OITNB have also made multiple appearances on Law & Order. Unsurprisingly, more often than not they’ve occupied boring white guy roles. Michael Harney, who stars on OITNB as perennially unlikable counselor Healy, played a cop, then a lawyer (in an episode that features Elizabeth Rodriguez as well), then a cop again (Sanja Danilovic, who plays his wife on OITNB, has also been on SVU.)

However, Pablo Schreiber, who terrorized the inmates of Litchfield in the first season of OITNB as Pornstache, has had a unique run on SVU. He first shows up as a common criminal in the episode “Haystack,” where he recites hammy dialogue one might expect of a character named ”Vinny D.” But since then, he has returned nine times as a violent psychopath named William Lewis, who has repeatedly targeted Mariska Hargitay’s Detective Olivia Benson.

The other TV role Schreiber might be most famous for is his turn as Nick Sobotka on The Wire. Nicky is a good guy, but a common criminal, not that far off from the character Schreiber first played on SVU. When combined with Pornstache and Lewis, these three roles almost embody the different levels of criminal behavior for white men in America. Lewis is clearly the scariest, the kind of sick monster procedurals love, but Pornstache is another kind of monster, one who uses his place of privilege to exploit those below him.

Pornstache has his funny moments, to be sure, but at the end of the day, he’s everything that’s wrong with the system. It’s strange to think, but between Lewis and Porstache, Schreiber has played two of the worst versions of the straight, white, American male. One might be more frightening on the surface, but they’re both horrific.

(Note: In addition to all the actors mentioned above, there are 16 other thespians who have done time on both Law & Order and Orange Is the New Black.)

In its heyday, Law & Order was a ridiculously important show, redefining what it meant to be a police procedural and what it meant to be a legal drama. It made TV grittier, realer, and even more diverse. The original version of the show (and its later offshoots) changed the face of television forever.

Now, over twenty years after L&O first premiered, Orange Is the New Black is changing the face of television again, right down to the very way we watch it. By proving that diversity is about more than just who you cast, it’s about what you do with them, Orange Is the New Black has started a palpable revolution in what we expect from an entire medium. The actors haven’t changed, but we have.

Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University’s Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture. 

Photo via Daniel P. Fleming/Flickr (CC BY S.A.-2.0)