Cancel culture was on trial, along with other social ills.
Law & Order Season 22 Episode 5 told a tale in which a professor's negative comment about gay people led to blackmail, fear of being 'canceled,' and murder.
It was an interesting, fresh take on several tropes and made its point without being overly heavy-handed.
This story could easily have gone down a predictable path.
Since we had a college student rumored to have had an affair with a professor, Law & Order could have followed many other stories and had that be the motive for murder.
Ironically, the teacher was not gay, nor was he taking advantage of his position to blackmail a student into sex -- instead, he was being blackmailed himself over having used a derogatory term for gay people on one occasion.
After Michelle Nichols' arrest, the court case brought up questions that didn't have easy answers, but the police side was somewhat lacking.
At first, it felt like a more realistic homicide investigation in which the cops bounced from one false lead to another without rhyme or reason, trying to figure out who had the motive, means, and opportunity to kill the victim.
Shaw: He was a law student, intelligent, charismatic. Who would want to kill a guy like that?
Cosgrove: Today, just about anybody.
The police quickly learned that Pell was a loathsome individual with more enemies than friends, but none of the leads panned out. That was frustrating but appropriate for an investigation like this.
However, once the cops found out that Nichols had a motive, they were laser focused on proving his guilt. First, they tried to blame him, then arrested his wife. There wasn't incontrovertible evidence of either's guilt, and they both turned out to be innocent.
That wasn't great police work, and given how many other people had motives to want Pell dead, the investigation felt too narrow.
Not all the other suspects were cleared, and Pell might have been blackmailing more than one person.
Nichols' involvement was the easiest solution, but that didn't necessarily mean it was right.
In addition, Law & Order could have done more with Shaw's shock at learning that his hero might have been involved in a murder and that the guy had once said something hurtful about gay people.
Shaw was upset, but he put it all aside and questioned Nichols anyway. While his professionalism was commendable, from a dramatic perspective, it was anticlimactic.
Why bring up his admiration of Nichols and then do nothing with it? It would have added another layer to this story if Cosgrove and Shaw were working at cross purposes on this one, with Shaw trying to prove Nichols innocent while Cosgrove was trying to prove him guilty.
By the time the cops got to Nichols, I guess they were short on time and had to move on to an arrest, but Shaw's feelings about Nichols ended up being little more than a footnote. What a shame!
The most obnoxious aspect of the court case was Seaver's cross-examination of Cosgrove.
Cosgrove: I'm not a sociologist. I'm a homicide detective. I follow the evidence wherever it leads and I arrest bad guys. In this case, that's Michelle Nichols.
Seaver: A Black woman.
Cosgrove: No. A murderer.
Seaver: Said by the cop who only arrests Black people.
Black people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, which is a huge problem, but that doesn't mean that every person of color who is arrested is innocent.
Seaver overstated his case when he claimed that Cosgrove only arrests Black people or that he arrested Michelle Nichols because of her skin color.
This wasn't a case where a cop found evidence of murder during a random traffic stop, in which case Seaver could argue that Michelle was stopped because she was Black and, therefore, racism played a part in this arrest.
An eyewitness stated that Michelle was absent from the family home at the time of the murder and the victim's blood was in her house, plus she had a motive to kill Pell. It wasn't the world's strongest case, but there was probable cause to believe she did it.
To be clear: racism is a problem, and Seaver is right that there are too many Black defendants on trial. But it's a system-wide problem and not all on Cosgrove, and Seaver's exaggerations do nothing to solve that problem.
The DA's office should have been more prepared, though.
They knew that nanny was an undocumented immigrant -- how could they have not considered the possibility she would run away to avoid deportation? They also should have anticipated Nichols claiming to have murdered Pell to help sow doubt in the jury's minds.
It's also unrealistic that someone could confess to murder on the stand and suffer zero consequences because someone else is on trial for that same murder. At the very least, the cops should have looked closely to find out who was telling the truth.
Price didn't seem like he knew what he was doing. He kept coming up with plans on the fly, like subpoenaing Nichols' teenage son.
Although Price was far more incompetent than usual, the cancel culture aspect was compelling enough to compensate for the case's glaring weaknesses.
A man is dead and a family's been destroyed. All because a good man blurted out a stupid, hateful word.Samantha
The question of whether Nichols should have faced consequences for a one-time use of a homophobic slur was an interesting one.
As Samantha pointed out, all of this tragedy occurred because Nichols was afraid of what that one awful moment could do to his career.
Nichols had worked tirelessly for LGBT equality, yet potentially might have lost his career over using a homophobic word in an offhand comment to his wife. Understandably, LGBT people might feel conflicted about him if they found out he'd once used that word, but was it worth 'canceling' him over?
While the episode made its point about the chilling effects of cancel culture, I'd have loved a more robust debate among the cops and the ADAs over this.
It was a complex issue that brought up other questions, such as whether certain comments are always unforgivable and whether people who have harmed a community in the past can become true allies in the present.
Sometimes Law & Order wraps up the hour without answering big questions, which was one of those times. Siras' arrest also raised unanswerable questions about whether it was right for a thirteen-year-old to plead guilty to murder and what should happen to him.
It's frustrating when the episode doesn't have enough time to delve deeply into these topics, but on the other hand, it certainly will get viewers talking!
Your turn to do so starts now. Hit that big, blue SHOW COMMENTS button, and let us know your thoughts! And don't forget you can watch Law & Order online right here on TV Fanatic.
Law & Order airs on NBC on Thursdays at 8 PM EST / PST.