Emotional Health · Health

‘Law and Order’ Every Night: Unhealthy Addiction or Simple Stress Reliever?

fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.



Dear Dr. Ford,
My husband is a very intelligent and well-educated man with a very high-level job, but he picked up a habit when he was hospitalized a few years ago and now it has become a fairly rigid routine: he is addicted to Law and Order, the TV show. As you may know, there is almost always one or two, or even three shows a night on syndication, and though he doesn’t watch them all, there are at least 2-3 hours devoted to this every day. Worse, he’s got me watching too, (though not as much) since otherwise we would spend very little time together.

Though I like them, there are other shows I’d like to watch, and better yet, things I’d like to do. I’m worried that he may be depressed. He has recovered from his illness and he seems OK in other ways. But we’re in our 60s now and I know they say you should be learning new things and stretching your mind in order to stay healthy. Do you think we have a problem?


Dear Sally,
I can see you’re worried about your husband but things may not be as bad as they seem. The “boob tube” has a terrible reputation but not all TV is the same, nor does it influence everyone in the same way. Certainly there are other activities that we can engage in as we get older that can reduce memory impairment and even stimulate the brain. Learning something new is one of the chief pathways to keeping the brain agile. Studies show that older people who try mastering a new instrument or similar skill show real neural development, compared to people in control groups.
According to Psychology Today, there are eight things to try that have shown to improve cognitive function:

1.  Physical activity
2.  Openness to experience
3.  Curiosity and creativity
4.  Social connections
5.  Mindfulness meditation
6.  Brain-training games
7.  Getting enough sleep
8.  Reducing chronic stress

To the extent that your husband’s TV habit may not allow much time for these other activities, one can construe it as a problem. In one important area, it may be serving a positive function, however: reducing stress. You say he has a “high-level” job so I assume that there may a good amount of the stress and pressure that comes with responsibility, regardless of what field he is in. Can it be that this TV habit is a form of unwinding not unlike drinking a cocktail or doing a crossword puzzle? Some people deliberately seek out what they call “mind-numbing” activities after a long day. And engaging in a repetitive activity has long been recognized as stress reducing. People do such things as chop wood, pore over stamps, scrub floors, play solitaire, and so on.  While some of these actions can be construed as “constructive” (e.g. they provide physical exercise, etc.) many are pure time wasters. But they all seem to provide significant relief in the form of easing tension.

You also mentioned that he picked up this habit when he was in the hospital. Anyone who has ever been hospitalized knows that Law and Order is one of the few reliably entertaining programs you can almost always find on TV. Have you ever asked him what appeals to him about the show? I wonder if he associates it with the comfort it gave him then?

As someone who is quite familiar with Law and Order myself, I can think of several things that make it appealing. The first, somewhat paradoxically, is that it is extremely predictable. The first 20 minutes are devoted to crime (i.e. law), followed by punishment (i.e. order). There will always be a red herring or two, but as the clock winds down, the real culprit will come to light. Within this structure they fit many stories “ripped from the headlines,” and an ever-changing cast, whose only reliable aspect is that to be an assistant district attorney you must be an uncommonly beautiful woman. And while the good guys don’t always win, they are always good.

The noted author and film critic Molly Haskell confessed to the Law and Order addiction she shared with her film critic husband, the late Andrew Sarris, in a New York Times article in 2002. She points to its evenhandedness as one of its chief assets. The judges tend to be very liberal, and some of the A.D.A.’s are on the conservative and self-righteous side, but everyone is engaged in the quest for the greater good of the very recognizable City of New York. While “Hudson University,” their fictionalized version of Columbia, cumulatively winds up looking like the most dangerous place on earth, and upper-middle class couples kill each other at an alarming rate, they work hard at keeping the verisimilitude high. The extras and character actors are particularly good, and Dick Wolf, the producer, has kept legions of struggling actors employed through the years. As New Yorkers, it’s not uncommon for our family to see someone we know pop up in a small role—our real estate agent, a friend’s sister, for example—and three times, unexpectedly, our nephew, an aspiring actor. Twice he was a young beat cop, but once he was a victim of the mob, thrown off a boat into the East River with “concrete shoes.” (It was surprisingly upsetting to watch.)

Leave a Reply to Sally Bahner Cancel Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Christine Kulikowski October 25, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    I’m addicted to all versions of Law and Order, but also NCIS, Criminal Minds and a couple of other crime shows. I watch for three reasons: my husband watches the news all the time (literally)on different stations, then goes back and sees it again; I’ve had about 15 orthopedic surgeries over the past 20 years and I watched all the crime dramas, as I spent month after month in bed or at physical therapy. I should say that my husband spends a lot of time on his computer while the news is on and reads books (mostly mysteries!). He raises his head when something new pops up. I’m a writer of mysteries and I do work while Law and Order is on. For us I think the repetitive stories (factual and fictitious) are white noise, blocking out distractions.

  • Sally Bahner October 22, 2015 at 10:03 am

    OMG, except for a few details, I could have written this myself, even the name is the same! My husband is also addicted to Law&Order thought it is mostly confined to weekends, all weekend, and occasionally late afternoon when he gets home from work. He goes to bed very early because of his work hours, so thankfully that eliminates week nights. If he’s home during the day, the program will surely be on.
    He’s 70 and has a lot of aging issues and few interests (a whole ‘nother ball of wax), and I suspect there is indeed a lot of mind-numbing comfort in the show. He says he likes the show and its characters. But it makes me crazy — I’ve seen them all and I can’t stand to sit through yet another repeat. I have plenty of other things to do and if there’s something I want to watch, I put my foot down.
    (Can you imagine how much money is being made on the residuals??)

  • hillsmom October 22, 2015 at 10:02 am

    Something to ponder. I love Blue Bloods which is around in reruns as well as a new season now. But there are other things to do as you have mentioned.