A new season of NBC's Law & Order returned last night with a complicated episode tackling pro-Hamas activism on college campuses and school presidents' double standards on free speech.
Thursday's episode, "Freedom of Expression," begins with the president of fictional Hudson University, Nathan Alpert (David Denowitz), stressfully talking to his wife (Sharone Sayegh) on the phone.
President Alpert: Oh, I can feel it. It's gonna happen. It's just a matter of time.
Mrs. Alpert: I know it's crazy right now and there are all sorts of rumors swirling.
President Alpert: No, it's more than that. People are already digging into my research. Every article, every book I ever published. One missed quote. One overlooked source.
Mrs. Alpert: They can't accuse you of plagiarism if you're not a plagiarist.
President Alpert: Sure, they can. That's what's happening. It's how the bastards get their payback.
This opening bit of dialogue is an obvious reference to Claudine Gay, the disgraced former president of Harvard University. In the case of Gay, however, she was a serial plagiarist who committed far more offenses than a missed quote or "an overlooked source." Exposing her lies was justice, not "payback."
President Alpert is stabbed to death by an unknown assailant and NYPD detectives Jalen Shaw (Mehcad Brooks) and Vincent Riley (Reid Scott) go to work to find his killer.
Shaw and Riley soon discover that Alpert made many enemies among university staff for his embrace of cancel culture. A university lacrosse coach describes Alpert as "a progressive, cancel first, ask questions later type of president."
The president even had to get a restraining order against a former professor, Phillip Klein (Jason Babinsky), who threatened to kill him. When Shaw and Jalen find Klein to bring him in for questioning, he is holding anti-Israeli posters he tore down in disgust. The posters say, "From the river to the sea."
Klein tells the detectives that Alpert actually fired him for a different issue altogether, specifically for opposing biological males in women's sport.
Klein: What kind of a relationship did I have with Alpert? A terrible one. Shall I continue?
Shaw: No. We get it. The question is, why? What triggered all the rage?
Klein: Son of a bitch fired me for having the audacity to suggest that someone born a man shouldn't be allowed to compete in women's athletics, regardless of how they identify. A college campus is a place to debate, express opinions. But not here, not these days. You express the wrong view, you're canceled. Unless, of course, you're talking about Israel. Yeah, on that topic, you can say whatever you want. The more hateful, the better.
Riley: I don't blame you for being upset. I don't even blame you for threatening to kill him. Yeah. We read the restraining order.
Klein: I didn't mean it literally. I was sitting at home watching the news, reading about Israel. I-I-- I lost my mind.
Klein is able to quickly provide an alibi and remove himself from the list of potential suspects. Shaw and Riley probe him further about any other potential enemies Alpert had.
Riley: Ok. So, who else hated Alpert?
Klein: Everyone, especially the Jewish community.
Riley: Alpert is Jewish.
Klein: Exactly. He refused to issue a statement after the October 7th terrorist attack. George Floyd, Alpert issued a statement. Roe V. Wade, statement. Hamas slaughters innocent Israelis, no statement. And then things, they just -- they got worse. Last month, this pro-Palestinian student group hosted a film symposium on campus, and the movies were disgusting. They were full of anti-Semitic tropes. Alpert said that the filmmakers had a right to express their views.
Shaw: So you're saying the Jewish community is pissed off at Alpert 'cause of this.
Shaw: Well, do you know anyone in that community who actually wanted to hurt him?
Klein: Hurt him? No. Fire him, yeah. There was a group of influential donors demanding that he resign. But Alpert wouldn't budge. He told 'em all to go to hell.
The detectives next meet with one of these influential donors. The donor looks and acts like Bill Ackman, the real-life billionaire who fought Harvard and other universities for their refusal to condemn Hamas. He tells the detectives that Alpert had banned a pro-Palestinian group on campus the day of his murder.
Shaw: What did he find?
Donor: Video of a student praising Hamas for their courage on campus at the film symposium. That was a bridge too far even for Alpert.
The group of banned pro-Palestinian activists includes Chloe Esper (Alexa Wisener), a young actress with millions of social media followers. Esper organizes on campus with a popular Palestinian professor, Kendra Nasser (Tehmina Sunny), and a young, white male student named Cam Lawson, (Braxton Fannin) who is obsessed with the cause.
Naturally, evidence reveals that Lawson stabbed the professor because the white guy is always the murderer in these shows. Although, in this case, he was helped and encouraged by Nasser. The Palestinian professor gave him the knife and details of Alpert's location.
At her trial, Nasser admits on the stand that she is "proud" of Lawson for killing Alpert, but the jury acquits her of any wrongdoing.
To make the episode even more complex, pro-Israeli professor Klein also becomes a murderer and kills Palestinian activist Esper at a rally before the trial. Klein shoots Esper when she asks the audience, "Will you fight for a free Palestine! From the river to the sea!"
Overall, the episode's plot was confusing and unwieldy in its attempt to portray violence from both Israeli and Palestinian supporters. Yet "Freedom of Expression" provided many surprising moments where things were said that almost never appear in a Hollywood script. I cannot think of a previous network show that so bluntly discussed left-wing double standards on free speech and treatment of conservatives.
Law & Order is one of the first network shows to return in the wake of the Hollywood strikes. Have these long months away actually caused some writers to reevaluate and reflect on left-wing hypocrisy? The coming months will tell.