Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Law & Order SVU “Retro” Lifeless

This episode of Law & Order SVU was probably one of the dullest I’ve seen I quite some time. Overly preachy and filled with forced drama, it is also hindered by too much screen time for the deadpan and lifeless Michaela McManus.

But first, the recap; my review will follow afterwards:

A cabbie (Babs Olusanmokun) drops off a baby at a fire station, saying that she is sick with a high fever and that the mother left her in the cab. At the hospital, we see Dr. Massey (Donna Murphy) talking to Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Elliot Stabler (Chris Meloni), as it appears that the baby was not being treated properly for AIDS by its parents.

Later, Benson questions the cab driver, who says that the mother left the child in the cab and when he touched the baby he felt the high fever. Stabler, with TARU Tech Morales (Joel de la Fuente) look at the cab camera and does not see an image of any woman. When confronted, the cabbie then admits that he took the fare off the books for extra money.

ME Warner calls them in. No, the baby isn’t dead, but she was called in to help by Dr. Massey as they worked together on an AIDS team. She took a swab to get the baby’s DNA in order to find her mother, and it matched a woman being held in Rikers. They go to question her, and after denying she had a child, she then admits that she did have one but hid the information so as not to have the baby taken away from her. She left the baby with her downstairs neighbor.

When Benson and Stabler go to question the downstairs neighbor, after a woman answers the door, they are surprised to see the cabbie appear, who seems to be the woman’s husband. Later, at the SVU squad for questioning, they admit their green cards had expired so they couldn’t just take the baby in to the hospital. Besides, the cabbie says, the drugs they give for AIDS is poison. When asked why they feel that way, they say the president – of Gambia, that is – says that it is. Every Thursday, the president uses some kind of rub and drinks some concoction to cure AIDS. They said they found a doctor on the Internet, Gideon Hutton, who believes in cures like this and sought out his help.

At Hutton’s (Martin Mull) office, Hutton tells the detectives that he did provide an alternative treatment for the baby’s thrush – vitamins and yogurt - and also instructed the couple to return at a later date for more therapy. Olivia says “Like what, pudding?” He says no, antifungal medication, like any medical professional would have prescribed. Stabler calls him a quack.

Back at the squad, ADA Grayleck (Michaela McManus) states that Hutton is a walking malpractice suit, but that alternative medicine does have a place. Munch (Richard Belzer) informs them all that “Dr. Demento’s” web site says that there is no proof that HIV causes AIDS, and that AIDS is a government conspiracy funded by big pharmaceuticals. He says Hutton appears to be an “AIDS Denier” who do not believe that HIV causes AIDS and that AIDS doesn’t exist. Grayleck says his denial nearly killed the baby, calling him Dr. Do Nothing. As they can’t get at the doctor’s confidential files, Grayleck decides to contact her “reporter friends” to use the media to smoke them out.

At a press conference, Grayleck openly says the doctor’s treatment of the baby was reckless, and mentions Hutton by name. Of course, we then see Hutton and his attorney Donne Emmett (Viola Davis)  in Cragen’s (Dann Florek) office, Hutton clearly upset that his name is being smeared on all the channels, and that they are scaring his patients. The attorney asks for a public apology within 24 hours or there will be a lawsuit. As they leave, Munch enters, dryly stating “I guess a hug’s out of the question.” Cragen asks what he got from the tip line, and he says a few hundred people say Hutton is a great doctor. But, one anonymous caller told him about one patient – Lisa Ross- who was being treated for HIV where the doctor wasn’t doing anything. But, when Benson and Stabler arrive at the Ross home, they are informed that she is dead.

When speaking to Lisa’s mother Susan (Paula Malcomson), they are told Lisa died from an allergic reaction to an antibiotic, and that they did not know she was allergic. She says the doctor tried to save her when she was taken to the hospital to no avail. When Olivia tells her about the anonymous call that Lisa had HIV, the mother doesn’t say anything about it. But when asked for access to her daughter’s medical files, the mother indicates how depressed she is over Lisa’s death and wants to be left alone.

Speaking with Grayleck, they tell her that Lisa’s body never made it to the ME, and Hutton signed the death certificate. When Grayleck counters that every death of a child must be examined by the ME, Benson tells her how the law works - that if the death occurs in a hospital or doctor’s office as this one did, that is not the case. Grayleck tells them that they need help from the anonymous tipster. Benson and Stabler enlist TARU Morales’ help and they also view files on Susan Ross. She was a schoolteacher with a few million dollars in the bank. They listen to the recording of the tip call, and while it’s clear to me that a school bell rings in the background of the call, Olivia asks the tech guy to isolate the sound. Yes, it is a school bell. Stabler guesses that maybe the caller was a colleague, and guesses maybe it was the man who cosigned her car loan, Jack Lufton, a chemistry teacher. How convenient!

Questioning Lufton, he tells them he had been seeing Susan long ago, and was monogamous. When he tested positive for HIV, he confronted her, and she saw it as no big deal. Her husband had been killed while in Africa on safari when they were in an accident in their jeep and she contracted HIV from a blood transfusion. So far, the teacher is OK. But he reported her to the school and she got fired, and the administration paid her seven figures so they wouldn’t sue. Susan was taking no precautions around the students, and even breast-fed Lisa for a year. Dr. Hutton told her it was OK.

ME Warner tells Grayleck that kids get infected during pregnancy but also sometimes during breastfeeding. The illness can be prevented from being passed on if the mother undergoes treatment during pregnancy, and putting the child on meds after birth. But, they see Hutton as the problem, and Warner says he had a legal duty to make sure her kids were tested. Doctors have to offer patients treatments that are proven effective. Grayleck thinks this gives them more than enough probable cause to subpoena Hutton’s records. But Warner thinks there is only one conclusive way to find out what killed her – exhume the body, which they do.

Warner does the postmortem. Meanwhile, in custody with her attorney, Susan Ross objects, saying she had the right to breast feed her daughter, and Olivia counters that she didn’t have the right to infect her and withhold meds. But the mother says she did not make her sick. Dr. Hutton is also being questioned. He said Lisa had a hell of a cold. They question his treatment. Meanwhile, Warner notes significant congestion in her lungs, meaning she died of pneumocystis pneumonia, something she’s not seen other than in AIDS patients. She rules it a murder. They arrest the mother and Hutton for murder. Susan's son Tommy (Aidan Mitchell) is agitated over the events.

At trial, we see Warner on the stand being questioned by Grayleck. We see a little video with how the virus works. Warner stands up to the badgering of the defense attorney. Hutton also testifies about HIV being a retrovirus, and also gets in a dig about the little video by saying that “cartoons” have always been used to spread propaganda. He says the drug companies are using fear to motivate people to use their drugs, and that what kills these people is not the HIV but problems relating to gays and drug addicts from blood toxicity from repeated drug use, malnutrition, and anti-HIV meds. Under questioning from Grayleck, he admits he has never done any testing on the disease. Grayleck brings up questionable references that the doctor uses to base his care, but he says she is missing the point. He says millions of people are being misdiagnosed and mistreated. He refers Warner, saying she is biased, implying she has an agenda because she is black. The doctor goes on a rant and the jury and gallery look appalled.

On the courthouse steps, Warner and Hutton argue. She calls him and SOB and his beliefs “junk science.” She also calls him a murderer and a “false prophet.” He says that’s what they called Jesus Christ and he walks away. Grayleck approaches, saying that jurors love conspiracy theories and they may buy what “Dr. Strangelove” is selling. Warner tells Grayleck if they lose the case it gives Hutton credibility and more people will die.

Back in the courtroom, Susan Ross testified that when she was on anti-retrovirals they almost killed her, and Hutton took her off the meds and saved her. She did not want that for her daughter. On cross-examination, Grayleck states that while Susan thinks Lisa’s death was tragic, it was hardly an accident. She proceeds to point out people in the gallery who were alive because of treatment for HIV, and the defense objects. While Grayleck continues her rant, Susan collapses and has a seizure. How convenient!

In the hospital, Olivia visits Susan, telling her she has toxoplasmosis, a brain disease affecting AID patients. (Why isn’t the doctor telling this to Susan and with medical confidentiality, should Olivia even have been told this?) Susan wanted to believe that Hutton was right, and seems to think because he’s a doctor he must be right. But Olivia counters that he won’t be truthful because then he’s have to admit he was responsible for Lisa’s death and that he misled her. She asks for her help to stop him. She whisperers that Lisa is not the only one…children who died. As alarms from her monitors go off, she calls out Tommy’s name. Susan dies.

At the ADA’s office, Hutton and his attorney are told that Susan made a dying declaration about other kids dying, which the attorney says won’t be admissible as Susan was demented from her disease. But, it was enough for them to get information from the pharmacy in Hutton’s building, which pointed them to the deaths of three juvenile patients of his.  Grayleck offer him a guilty plea, with him surrendering his license and medical records, with 5 years. He resists at first, but then says he will speak the truth from his prison cell.

Later, while looking a patient files, Olivia finds information that shows that Susan had HIV before her son Tommy was born, so they get a court order to have him tested for HIV. In the hospital as they attempt to draw blood, Tommy resists and kicks Elliot in the ribs. Hutton’s attorney shows up and hands them a restraining order, saying she represents him and that Tommy is competent and has a right to refuse.

After Elliot gets his ribs bandaged (in a gratuitous but welcome shirtless scene with Elliott), Grayleck explains they have no legal standing to challenge the restraining order. When the doctor arrives and tells Elliot he has some broken ribs, Grayleck says “this is perfect” and they can put them to good use. Elliot later arrests Tommy for assaulting a cop. In court, Tommy sticks by his mother’s beliefs, but Grayleck says it’s the same stuff touted by the AIDS deniers. Grayleck uses Holocaust deniers as an example to show Tommy that his mother’s AIDS denial is just as wrong. She also explains that his mother would lie to him about HIV because it would shatter her fantasy world. She badgers him. But, it is to no avail when judge Bradley rules to uphold the restraining order.

Grayleck moves to have him remanded without bail for his assault on Elliot. But Elliot takes her aside, saying he only filed charges to get him tested, not to get a kid jailed. He says that they lost – it’s over – the case is done. Grayleck withdraws her motion and asks the assault charges be dropped, and the judge agrees. Grayleck chides Elliot, saying she hopes he knows what he’s doing. (Of course he does!) As Tommy leaves the courtroom, he and Elliot talk and he says he won’t get tested, and Elliot says he knows but asks for one favor.

At the hospital , Elliot asks Tommy to meet someone Dr. Massey introduced him to. It is a young boy, with complete hair loss. He doesn’t have AIDS, he has brain cancer, and his parents are Christian Scientists who don’t believe in medical treatment. He was ill and he prayed, and so did his parents, to get better. But when he went blind, a friend took him to the hospital. He was treated and his vision returned, but his parents are angry because he was “dissing God.” His grandmother said that God created doctors too, and why would he give them to us if he didn’t want us to use them? Of course, we later see Tommy in ME Warner’s office getting tested, with Elliott waiting. Warner says Tommy wants to talk to him. He tells Elliot the test came back positive, and he doesn’t want to die. “You got your whole life ahead of you” Elliot tells him, and the episode (thankfully) ends.

"Retro"  seemed to be another case where the story line, dialog, and acting was dumbed down. The most obvious was the corny dialog for McManus, who delivers her lines as if yelling them out makes the more dramatic. At first, I thought she suffers from an overdose of Botox in the face, but after seeing her raise her forehead a little, I think I have come to the conclusion that from her eyes on down, she is virtually expressionless. In fact, while she has very large eyes, they seem lifeless, almost mannequin-like. Her face appears frozen. But her dialog is mind-numbingly awful, and she delivers it just as badly as Elisabeth Rohm did on the original Law & Order. Usually I can warm up to new characters over time, but when we are given someone like McManus who is stiff and robotic, it is very hard to accept her. I hope they get rid of her soon because she is dragging down the show.

There are a few things that didn’t quite seem right to me. One was when Susan is hospitalized, Olivia delivers the diagnosis. With all the issues with medical confidentiality, what right does Olivia have to this private information? In fact, it seems like anyone with a badge can get all kinds of information at a hospital, especially when it furthers the story line.

I also laughed when Olivia asked the tech guy to isolate the sound of the bell on the tip call. It was crystal clear to me when I first heard it that it was a school bell, yet I guess our top-notch detectives aren't too bright. It’s just another case when this show seems to try to bring in technical information to the story, but they consistently do it badly. Second case in this point is the cheesy video during the trial showing how HIV/AIDS works. We are not that dumb that we needed it. But clearly it was put in there just so Dr. Hutton could have his line about the “cartoons.” Their continued attempt to bring in technical evidence or information always seems to fall flat because it’s just done poorly. I don't expect CSI-type effects, but I do expect something more believable or credible.   And, how convenient that they were able to quickly tie in the teacher who co-signed her car loan to the anonymous tip. Too easy. In fact, this whole case was too easy.

The story itself was devoid of drama. We all knew from the previews that Dr. Hutton was an AIDS denier. As the story unfolded, it was almost as if I head read the script in advance because it was so easy to figure out. I am not expecting all cases to be complex or have a twist, but a drama show needs DRAMA in order to grab the viewer. Because there were no surprises, and no conflicts that weren’t predictable, it was as if everyone was going through the motions. And what I thought strange was that they gave Tamara Tunie a big build up in this episode, but I didn’t see anything special for her except a little more screen time. Such a waste of her talent.

But Grayleck – what a train wreck. I haven’t quite figured out her lawyering style. She seemed to badger everyone on the stand, rather than use finesse to get the desired answered. And her stunt when she focused on people in the gallery was cheap. Yes, I know what she was trying to do but because it was so obvious it made her look desperate.

One good thing, we did get that short scene of a shirtless Stabler, but even that can’t save this dismal episode. Maybe if he would have done the whole episode shirtless I would reconsider my opinion of “Retro.” The only thing “Retro” made me want to do is get my hour back.

Clip from "Retro"

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Anonymous said...

Very much appreciate and agree with your review. "Retro" was beyond awful and, yes, Chris' shirtless scene was the ONLY thing worth experiencing in this wretched concoction of bad acting and even worse writing. I do not have the time to go into the perversity of the bizarre "deux ex machina" of Tommy's meeting, of all patients, a Christian Scientist child to resolve the plot. It was simply mind numbing. "Jumped the Shark"?! Heavens, I would say say they went over 144,000 of them!!! I would not be amazed if I heard that everyone involved with this fiasco were not severely depressed and in need of talking with(if not due to their inexcusable lack of dramatic taste and minconceptions)a Christian Science practitioner, then perhaps a damned good therapist to help them figure out where this debacle came from!!!

Anonymous said...

Sorry about the misspell on "misconceptions"! The episode has me so bored with my one guilty pleasure(the show)this morning that I didn't even edit properly! And again, EVERYONE was awful. Even Chris and Mariska looked about as bored as two veterans can look in a series! It is quite simply erasable if not for that fact that it may truly be "The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes" of the SVU canon; and, therefore, I shall keep it. Simply just awful!!!

Chris Zimmer said...

I love it - "The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!"

Anonymous said...

Great recap, as always.

I haven't seen this episode, yet, so I can't comment on the trial scenes and Graylek's body language (though, the loud tone, as you assert, was present in her previous episodes). From what I can discern, She seems pro-police -- often wanting to tag along -- and is willing to bend the rules ("Trials"' ending had her reaching Jack levels). If I had to pick an attitude or style based on what I've seen, so far, I think she's trying to become a little Abbie-esque (as Abbie was a forceful A.D.A.). However, Abbie had a disarming personality, particularly on cross. She alternated forceful to disarming quite ably (her crosses in "Loco Parentis," for example).

Or, perhaps, it's Connie-ish, since I view Connie as Abbie 2.0 (and she was forceful early on in MS Season 17). Either way, Graylek is clearly overcompensating, which, if done right, can be an interesting character quirk.

On to other concerns:

Swing confirmed to me the dumbing of dialogue, so nice to see that I was right on this. Great. Heh.

And now, we can add to someone else disrupting the courtroom (this time, with a seizure). Heh. I don't recall prior seasons pulling this tactics, at all. Mothership has done it, recently, in "Called Home" and "Executioner," so it's slippery slope time. Either way, it's lazy and distracts from the intellectual issue.

I need to check the dialogue, but, from what you're saying, I'm picking up major religious wankery (notably, the ending) and maybe a little racial one with Warner on the stand, like that. Either way, I'm not too thrilled.

On the plus side, nice to see Donna Murphy again (defense attorney Tyrell on the Mothership). That's probably the only bonus in this one. And Martin Mull, of course.

Lately, they've been casting many a comedic person for dramatic roles (Sara Gilbert, Chris Elliott, and now, Mull). It's an odd pattern for this season. I know Richard Lewis popped up in Closet (he was the voice of the radio shock jock), so maybe he'll do something next. Heh.

I was right the first time -- this season is not impressive, at all. And we got 17 more episodes left, too. God help us.

And I can do Killer Tomatoes jokes, too. Shall I dust off my knowledge of the animated series? Hehehe.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't go as far to say McManus is as awful as Liz Rohm, but she sure does suck.

The first two episodes of this season were actually all right, the rest has been crap. SVU's down the bucket.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm willing to cut Rohm slack, as she did what she could with the material on hand. Same goes for McManus.

As for your assertion of the first two episodes being alright, yeah, I'm with you. I can't even engage on the other episodes.

Anonymous said...

In referring back to Anonymous' comment on using Christian Science to help further the plot, I could not agree more. It has been decades, if I remember correctly, since that religion has been used to complicate or to resolve a drama in television or the movies. The writers should get some of their facts straight by means of a minor bit of research. There are fanatics in any religion, but using Christian Science as an example of egregious child abuse or neglect is rather short-sighted, out-dated, and ultimately uninformed. A grounded follower of the Church of Christ, Scientist knows full-well when medical intervention is not only necessary but inevitable. These are complex issues which are too involved to discuss here, but to use the word "pissed" to describe followers of that faith is inappropriate. ALSO, how could doctors start chemotherapy, etc., on a minor child without parential consent? I am nit-picking, of course; but if ever an SVU seriens deserved some hard-core discecting, this one is it. "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes"?! Try "Plan Nine from Outer Space" as a true measure of the ineptitude of this episode.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree; McManus has got to go. Don't get me wrong, I was glad to see that ADA Novak got the boot last season but they could at least give us viewers some credit and have an actor with incredible talent play an ADA.

Anonymous said...

Retro was amazingly accurate. I spent over a year infiltrating and studying AIDS denialism. As an AIDS researcher I can tell you the writers hit this issue right on spot! Anyone interested in AIDS denialism should check out the book “Denying AIDS: Conspiracy Theories, Pseudoscience, and Human Tragedy” being published by Copernicus / Springer Books. This book is the first psychological analysis of the AIDS denialist movement . It provides the inside scoop on the strange and dangerous world of AIDS denialism and pseudoscience and why they have attracted such a following. All of the royalties from sales of this book are being donated to purchase HIV treatments in Africa . Check it out. Thanks again for Retro!!

David Blake Jones said...

This episode was erroneously based on the death of Christine Maggiore's daughter. The LA County Coroner provided no proof that her child was positive, and there was no proof of PCP in the Lungs, yet it was ruled an AIDS death. AIDS dissidents are not deniers of AIDS and we dont need special psychological analysis. We just want the truth told. I am sure Galileo was ridiculed too in his day.

Katia said...

FYI: The information about the Gambian president claiming to cure AIDS and the fact that there is practically an entire country that believes him about that is also actually true. I thought it was pretty cool of the show to bring that to light.
Here's an article from the government-run newspaper of the Gambia if anyone is interested: