portion of the artwork for Tim Jones-Yelvington's story

Law & Order: Viewers Like Us (An Episode Guide)
Tim Jones-Yelvington

Law & Order: Viewers Like Us arose from series creator Aaron Davis’s theory that younger viewers, having been raised by mass media, were more engaged by their own television-watching habits than by television itself. At the time, police procedural/courtroom drama Law & Order and its spinoffs were witnessing a decline in ratings, particularly in the coveted eighteen- to forty-nine-year-old demographic.

Davis considered the popularity of reality television and speculated that “millenials” were a self-referential generation. They’d grown up watching Law & Order, and would feel naturally drawn to characters like themselves who also grew up watching Law & Order, and whose lives remained shaped by their viewing habits.

A recent graduate of the screenwriting program at the University of Southern California, Davis pitched his concept to Law & Order Executive Producer Dick Wolf, and after Wolf green-lit Davis’s series, NBC picked up the pilot, pleased by the show’s minimal production costs; shot on a single set with a two-person cast of lesser-known actors, the series was significantly cheaper to produce than the average nighttime drama.

Law & Order: Viewers Like Us profiled a young college dropout named Simon Smith, who along with his best friend, Jools, was an avid fan of Law & Order and its spinoffs, especially Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Simon’s character arc builds gradually over the course of the series toward the revelation of a secret from his past.

The series debuted with strong ratings, then saw a steep drop-off following its second episode. Ultimately, only seven half-hour episodes were produced before the show was canceled. Nonetheless, Viewers Like Us developed a strong cult following, most especially among academics and on the Internet, where fans continue to dissect its plots.

In the criminal justice system, there are the police who investigate crimes, and the viewers who watch television shows about their investigations. These are the stories of viewers like us.

Episode Guide

1. “Who’s Watching?” (Pilot)

The pilot introduces viewers to Simon Smith, a rabid viewer of the Law & Order series, particularly Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (Law & Order: SVU). In his opening voiceover, Simon calls Law & Order his “comfort food,” and says he watches it to relax.

As the pilot begins, Simon is watching an episode of Law & Order: SVU in which detectives discover the sexually violated corpse of a young female retail worker inside a residential trash compactor. Via voiceover, Simon muses that a compactor would cut down on the trash piled outside the window of his garden apartment.

On television, Special Victims Unit cuts to a commercial for a phone sex service that advertises, “Girls standing by waiting to talk to you.” Simon picks up his telephone and dials. The woman at the other end asks Simon what he’s doing, her bright red mouth all that’s visible to viewers. Simon tells her he’s watching Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. The woman asks Simon whether Special Victims Unit is the show about sex crimes, and wonders what fascinates him about sexual violence. Simon quickly hangs up.

Immediately, the telephone rings, and Simon answers anxiously. A woman at the other end, older than the phone sex operator, asks Simon whether he’s all right, and viewers discover she’s his mother. Simon tells his mother everything is fine. His mother asks how his job search is going, and Simon answers evasively.

“I’m supposed to be a grownup now. Every morning, I look at myself in the mirror and repeat what my high school P.E. teacher Mr. Clemenson always used to say: ‘You’re with the big dogs now, little puppy.’” —Simon, opening voiceover

“You want to sex-crime me, baby? Tell me how you want to crime. You want to ravage me in a dumpster? You want to part my labia with a melon rind? Stuff my mouth with dirty tissues? Stuff me, baby.” —Phone sex operator, addressing Simon

“What are you eating!? Dr. Oz says raw almonds are the new superfood. Dietary fiber, Simon! They sell canisters at Costco. Canisters, Simon! I’ll send you a care package.” —Simon’s mother, addressing Simon

~Before the series’ budget was slashed after its third episode, Law and Order: Viewers Like Us produced original scenes from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit “episodes” Simon viewed. Although the actual cast of SVU was employed in their production, these are not considered SVU episodes in the strictest sense, as they occur outside SVU’s continuity, and none were filmed nor aired to completion.

~In the SVU segment from Viewers Like Us’s pilot, the trash compactor where detectives discover the young woman’s body is labeled “Compactrax,” a manufacturer owned by the brother of Viewers Like Us creator and showrunner Aaron Davis.

~When the pilot first aired, viewers questioned whether a commercial for phone sex operators would appear during a primetime network drama. In response, Aaron Davis clarified that Simon was watching late night SVU reruns in syndication on a local station, “emblematic,” he said, “of the character’s urban alienation.” Davis has not responded to the ensuing Internet speculation about whether Simon’s mother would realistically call him so late at night.

2. “The Viewing Party”

In this episode, viewers meet Jools, Simon Smith’s best friend and fellow Law & Order aficionado. Jools arrives at Simon’s doorstep bearing ice cream for a Law & Order viewing party. She tells Simon he has no idea the week she’s had. Simon tells her he can imagine, as he’s had quite the week himself.

The friends commiserate, ripping open the ice cream container and consuming its contents. They watch an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in which Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler infiltrate a satanic cult where young women are raped, mutilated, and offered as sacrifices to Lucifer. The cultists contend the women volunteer to be sacrificed, and so the sex and murder are consensual. At the station, Benson and Stabler argue the case’s ethics with detectives Munch and Tutuola.

While watching the scene, Jools expresses her sexual attraction to Christopher Meloni’s Stabler. Simon asks Jools how her boyfriend Daniel would react to Jools’ declaration. Jools confesses her love life is in crisis, as she and Daniel have not had intercourse in seven weeks. Simon tells her she’s lucky she has someone. Jools consoles Simon, reminding him the love of his life is “out there” and it’s only a matter of time until they meet.

“The interrogation room, the evidence locker, hell, I’d do him nasty all over the precinct.”—Jools, regarding Elliot Stabler

“All I’ve ever wanted is somebody to eat ice cream with.” (Jools glares.) “I mean, with tongue.” —Simon

~The character of Jools appeared in an earlier version of the pilot, but her scenes were excised following the firing of High School Musical’s Vanessa Hudgens, the actress initially hired to portray her. Hudgens’ departure ignited a public feud with series creator and showrunner Aaron Davis, in which Davis accused Hudgens of “diva tantrums,” and Hudgens called Davis a “talentless hack whose series is destined for cancellation.” Shortly after the edited pilot aired, Hudgens was replaced by Canadian actress Cassie Steele, best known to audiences as DeGrassi the Next Generation’s Manuella Santos. Ironically, Steele was originally cast as Gabriella Montez in High School Musical, the role Hudgens herself made famous, but bowed out to shoot her fifth season of Degrassi. Steele’s role on Law & Order: Viewers Like Us made her the latest in a series of former DeGrassi actresses cast in starring roles on American series. Prior to Steele’s appearance on Viewers Like Us, Nina Dobrev (DeGrassi’s Mia) and Shenae Grimes (DeGrassi’s Darcy) starred on the CW Network’s The Vampire Diaries and 90210, respectively.

~Jools brings Simon a carton of Ben and Jerry’s “Mission to Marzipan,” a flavor that actor Chad Wilson, Simon’s portrayer, once promoted as his favorite. Viewers cried product placement, but Aaron Davis denied Ben and Jerry’s paid for the publicity.

3. “The Sculpture Gardener”

Simon watches an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit about a serial rapist and murderer who victimizes men he solicits for sex online. The perpetrator sculpts his victims’ genitals into elaborate centerpieces he leaves behind on victims’ dining room tables, while disposing of what’s left of their remains.

Just after the episode begins, Simon receives a phone call from his mother. He sighs, visibly annoyed she’s interrupted him watching television. His mother asks whether he’s had any job interviews this week. He tells her he interviewed for two retail positions, and both interviews felt solid. Through voiceover, Simon admits he hasn’t left the apartment in over a week. Simon’s mother reminds him that she and his father cannot support him forever. She understands if he’s reluctant to communicate with strangers, given everything he’s endured. Simon tells her he can take care of himself and hangs up the phone.

While watching the rest of Law & Order: SVU, Simon surfs the Internet. He loads Manhunt.net, a Web site where gay men cruise for sex. A chime sounds, and Simon receives a text message from a naked-torsoed beefcake named NYCStud69. Quickly, Simon closes his laptop and thrusts it aside.

“You had better not be lying, Simon. You of all people should know the wages of deceit!” —Simon’s mother, addressing Simon

“I wish they’d show the dick sculptures.” —Simon, watching television

~After the revelation of Simon’s homosexuality, a spokesperson from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) said that by “outing” himself early in the series, Simon was a significant improvement over the Law & Order franchise’s previous gay contract character, the original series’ A.D.A. Serena Southerlyn (played by Elisabeth Rohm), who after four seasons announced she was a lesbian immediately before departing the canvas. “However,” GLAAD’s spokesperson continued, “it remains to be seen whether Simon’s depiction will be wholly positive, given the implication that a dark secret is lurking in his past.”

~After Simon’s “outing,” viewers questioned why, in the pilot, a gay character would’ve called a female phone sex operator. “Can’t a gay dude be curious about the ladies?” Aaron Davis replied.“What, will somebody revoke his gay card? Frankly, I think that’s a little close-minded. It’s like … reverse discrimination or something.”

4. “Critical Theories”

In this episode, Jools engages Simon in a critical conversation about Law and Order: Special Victims Unit in which she attempts to deconstruct their mutual fascination with the series. Jools says that by producing the same anxieties it allays, the series is complicit in the so-called “culture of fear.” According to Jools, this “culture of fear,” which exploits middle America’s terror of urban crime, has enabled the United States to incarcerate more citizens than other “First World” nations do, while establishing the construction and operation of prisons as profit-generating enterprises. Jools argues that while Law & Order helps stoke the culture of fear, the franchise’s ongoing popularity also results from this same culture, generating a self-perpetuating cycle.

While Jools talks, Simon checks his e-mail and social networking Web sites, consumes snacks, and handles his cell phone, presumably sending and receiving text messages.

“Sure, the characters of color kick ass, but did you ever stop to think they’re kicking ass for the same criminal-industrial complex that disproportionately incarcerates them?” —Jools

“This popcorn is totally burnt. It tastes like ass. Here, taste it.” —Simon, addressing Jools

~Although the script was credited to staff writer Elaine Wilkinson, Aaron Davis later admitted this episode was in fact written by intern Dharma DeSantis, an undergraduate cultural studies major at New York University. Davis said he wanted to air, as an experiment, an episode of Law & Order: Viewers Like Us written “by and for viewers like us.” Though panned by critics and viewers alike, the episode has since become the subject of numerous scholarly treatments, and is a frequent topic of conversation at the annual Law & Order Studies conference at the University of Hawaii.

~Viewers criticized Jools’ behavior as out of character, given this episode was the only time she’d appeared at all critical of Law & Order. Actress Cassie Steele rejected these criticisms, saying, “People think pretty girls can’t be smart, but Jools has a brain. She’s complicated. She thinks things.”

~Although Simon’s television remains muted through the episode, Law and Order: SVU continues in the background. Astute viewers recognized the silent episode as Season seven’s “Storm,” in which a group of sisters are kidnapped from New Orleans and brought to New York City following Hurricane Katrina. This was the first time Davis’s crew did not produce original SVU clips to air during Viewers Like Us, a practice that would continue through the series’ final three episodes.

5. “Necessary Categories”

In this episode, Simon Smith reorganizes his iTunes library. He assigns his music to one of four categories: “exuberant,” “ponderous,” “tranquil,” or “obscure.” He retypes the track titles and artist names using all-lowercase letters. Through voiceover, he informs viewers that the lowercase letters calm him.

While reorganizing his library, he watches an episode of Law & Order: SVU where a young boy witnesses his stepmother’s rape and murder. Midway through the episode, Jools telephones, and Simon mutes the television to speak with her. Jools asks him what’s up, as she hasn’t heard from him all week. Simon says he’s been busy. Jools says he’s lying, she can hear it in his voice. She tells him he’s been acting strange lately. He denies her accusation. She reminds him he can tell her anything. He hangs up the phone.

“Are you getting laid and not telling me!? Tell me the truth! Don’t think I won’t anal rape you with a broken Izze bottle!” —Jools, addressing Simon

~When the camera focuses on Simon’s laptop monitor, he can be seen recategorizing tracks by an artist named Emily Bezar, a little-known singer-songwriter from the Bay Area. Bezar was a family friend of staff writer Tina Schiller. Bezar’s music is somewhat similar to artists Kate Bush and Tori Amos, but more influenced by jazz and avant garde composition. She has since become a favorite among Viewers Like Us’s remaining Internet fan-base.

~Visible in a stack of books on Simon’s desk is Severance by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Robert Olen Butler. Severance is a collection of short fiction based upon famous historical decapitations, and features a story about the automobile accident that killed Jayne Mansfield, mother of Law & Order: SVU star Mariska Hargitay.

6. “Secrets and Liars”

The episode begins with Simon in the bathtub, hunched beneath a running faucet, washing black dye from his hair. A buzzer sounds. Simon calls down to ask who’s there and Jools announces herself. Simon buzzes her up and puts on his bathrobe to answer the door.

Immediately upon entering the apartment, Jools asks Simon why he altered his hair color. He tells her, For the hell of it. She tells him, Bullshit, and says she knows he’s been hiding something. She has come to confront him, she tells him, and to discover what’s been going on with him.

After a sequence of entreaties and denials, Simon finally tells Jools he dyed his hair because he feels safer when nobody recognizes him. He tells her whenever he leaves the apartment, he has the sensation that somebody is following him.

He tells Jools that he moved to New York City because something terrible happened at home. When Simon was fourteen years old, he began a sexual relationship with his older cousin, who at the time was twenty-one. Shortly after Simon’s seventeenth birthday, his parents discovered the relationship and prosecuted Simon’s cousin as a sexual offender.

Simon left for college the following year, but never felt secure. Unable to focus on his studies, he failed his second term. Moving to New York City, he tells Jools, was his therapist’s idea, an experiment in independent living.

What Simon has never told anybody is his relationship with his cousin was consensual. On the stand, Simon called his cousin coercive so as not to upset his parents, but in reality he was in love with his cousin and misses him terribly. He has been haunted by guilt since the trial, feeling responsible for his cousin’s incarceration. Because of this guilt, he feels self-conscious in public spaces, as though everyone knows his misdeeds and is judging him.

Jools tells Simon perhaps his parents were correct, and he was too young to knowingly consent. He shouldn’t blame himself. Simon says maybe Jools is right. Simon falls asleep with his head in Jools’ lap, watching an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit where a piano teacher is arrested for molesting his students.

“There were times I’d look at him and hope … I’d hope his face was all I’d see forever.” —Simon, regarding his cousin

~A spokesperson from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation denounced the revelation of Simon’s secret as perpetuating the conflation of homosexuality with pedophilia, incest, and related forms of sexual deviance.

~A group calling themselves the United Federation of Cousin Lovers (UFCL) sent Aaron Davis a letter thanking him for his “honest depiction of an experience far more common than anybody realizes.” Shortly thereafter, a representative of the organization named Clive MacGuffin appeared on the Today Show to give testament to “the bonds of amorous fealty” that bound him to his father’s brother’s son. When Today Show co-host Meredith Vieira asked whether his relationship constituted incest, he proclaimed, “That’s a bull*bleep* cultural construct!”

~Simon uses “Earth Tones” hair dye, an ecologically sustainable brand promoted by former Law & Order: Special Victims Unit actress Michaela McManus, whose ill-fated turn as A.D.A. Kim Greylek ended after only fourteen episodes.

7. “Seen Assailant”

As this episode begins, Simon is watching a Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode in which detectives discover the decomposing body of a sexually molested five-year-old girl. His telephone rings just before a commercial break. Simon answers. A recording asks him whether he’ll accept a collect call from “Gavin Carlton.” Simon blanches, then approves the call.

An unseen male asks whether Simon is there and if he can hear him. Simon grunts affirmatively. The man tells Simon he loves and forgives him, and viewers realize the caller is Simon’s incarcerated cousin. Simon is quiet. His cousin asks whether he is still on the line. Staring at the television, Simon slides his finger onto the switch hook button to disconnect the call.

Moving in an almost zombie-like state, Simon opens his laptop, logs onto Manhunt, and views a message from NYCStud69. Simon types, “Come over?” After a jump cut, a stocky white male dressed in black clothing arrives at Simon’s apartment. Simon invites him in and they begin making out. The visitor violently spins Simon and kicks his lower back. Simon collapses, and the visitor yanks off Simon’s blue jeans. Simon cries out, but his assailant muffles his screams.

After another jump cut, viewers see Jools outside Simon’s door, pounding and calling his name. Finally, she pulls a key from under his doormat and pushes inside. She finds Simon unconscious and bloodied. She panics, grabs the telephone, and dials 911. As the episode ends, Simon is wheeled into an ambulance. A paramedic informs Jools he’s in critical condition, and may not survive the night.

“Simon? Simon, are you there? I want you to know I forgive you. I want you to know I think about you. I think about you every day.” —Gavin, Simon’s cousin

“Simon? Simon!? Don’t die on me, you asshole!” —Jools

~When this episode was written and produced, Aaron Davis believed the series was entering a two-month rerun cycle, but after several months, NBC announced Viewers Like Us would not receive a full-season pickup. Many viewers continue to resent the network for leaving them with a cliffhanger, while others speculate about Simon’s fate. In earlier interviews, Davis said that rather than following a single protagonist throughout the series’ run, he intended to present a different “viewer” each season in order to represent a more diverse cross-section of Law & Order’s viewership. Thus, Simon’s survival was far from a fait accompli.

~Many viewers have continued Simon’s story in fan fictions posted on the Internet. One group of young women call themselves the “Simools” and speculate an alternate reality in which Simon is alive, heterosexual, and married to Jools.

~“Slash fiction,” erotica stories in which male characters are paired with one another, are also popular. Most revolve around Simon’s relationship with his cousin, Gavin Carlton. An entire subgenre of Viewers Like Us slash fiction takes place in prison; in the majority of these stories, Simon has deliberately committed a crime in order to land himself behind bars, and shares a cell with Gavin. These tales are often wrought with romantic sturm und drang, as Simon and Gavin confront their emotional demons and shared history. Inexplicably, most slash writers describe Gavin as resembling the actor Christopher Walken. In fact, Gavin Carlton’s association with Christopher Walken has become so deeply entrenched in particular subcultures, “walken” has become a verb used to describe incestual bonds similar to Gavin and Simon’s. The Web site Urban Dictionary defines “to walken” as “to mack on one’s own cousin, e.g., ‘My cousin’s a total hottie, I want to walken him up.’”

I once dreamed I was watching a vampire lesbian film starring Law & Order: SVU’s Mariska Hargitay. Then Hargitay herself entered the room as her vampire character from the flick I was at that very moment watching. I remember thinking I was very excited by the opportunity to meet Mariska Hargitay, but disappointed to encounter her in character as a vampire lesbian, as I was dying to print SVU transcripts off the Internet and read lines with Mariska. Like many leftists critical of the criminal-industrial complex, I find Law & Order and its spinoffs, with their relentless and often heavy-handed topicality, compulsively watchable, even as I often find myself appalled by their conservatism and sensationalism. It’s an odd comfort to know that no matter the time of day, somewhere a Law & Order episode is on.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 27 | Law & Order Issue | Winter 2010