Since the inception of the “Law & Order” franchise 24 years ago, every incarnation of the show has incorporated the practice of ‘ripping from the headlines’ (let’s face it, the term may have actually been created just for this show). In fact, many would argue that the custom has virtually been perfected by the franchise in the past quarter century, and it’s clear the tradition continues, with many improvements, including one that’s a bit eerie: foresight.
In his first season of work on ‘SVU’ three years ago, Executive Producer Warren Leight told me that his goal was always to be about ten minutes ahead of the zeitgeist.
In his third season, he and the writers seemed to have gained a sixth sense as several episodes somehow featured an topic that was hitting the media spotlight just as they were airing, meaning they were written and shot before the actual headline they seemed to be based on made a splash. Two examples include “Jersey Breakdown” which featured corruption in the Garden State; airing just as real-life Governor Chris Christie was accused of tampering with bridge traffic to send a political message, and “Gridiron Solider” which explored the issue of homosexuality in football and aired just as prospect Michael Sam announced that he was gay and entering the NFL draft.
This week’s episode, “American Disgrace,” once again features something so timely, you have to wonder what the creatives at ‘SVU’ have sacrificed to gain this seemingly magical power.
The surprising scene occurs in the opening sequence of the show and contains a silent exchange in an elevator, a scenario viewers have seen recently via the video of former NFL player Ray Rice assaulting his then-fiancé. But again, it’s interesting to remember that this episode was shot in early June, long before that footage became public knowledge. There was, however, another famous elevator exchange caught on tape between Beyonce, her sister Solange Knowles and her husband Jay-Z that took place earlier this year, so maybe it isn’t some mythical aptitude at work here, but a keen sense of observation that resulted in this onscreen exchange. But, to give the show its due, who could have predicted that the Rice video, with its heated closed-door exchange, would come to light now, just as this episode was set to air? The timing seems more that a bit fortuitous, but when it comes to ‘SVU,” it was the man at the helm whose scrutiny of the news cycle lead to the scene.
“I think we’re all seeing that many times the way news leaks out now is via security cameras,” explains Leight. “So that’s how things come to light, and I loved the idea of just a silent black and white scene in the teaser and you want to know what’s going on. I think it’s interesting visually and I think it’s how stories are told now.”
Once the silence of that scene is broken, the intent of the actions becomes extremely clear within a few moments and a series of events begin to unravel that true, to ‘SVU’ form, will have viewers conflicted about actions and motives until the very end of the hour.
The episode centers around basketball star Shakir “The Shark” Wilkins (guest star Henry Simmons) and his actions off of the court, which may include serial rape.
Now you may be thinking, ‘Yeah, another story about an athlete doing bad things’ and while that may be the foundation here, the actuality of what happens is far different from what you may expect.
Opening the episode is a splashy press conference, in which billionaire Orion Bauer (Stacy Keach), with his daughter Cordelia (Teri Polo) by his side, announces that his clothing line, Orion Bay, has partnered with Shakir for a new venture. But things take a turn when Orion employee Carla (Kelley Missal) tells the SVU squad that she was raped by Shakir.
Things get even stickier when more women come forward with accusations against the star, and while Benson and Carisi disagree on the authenticity of the women’s stories, they convince Barba to pursue a case against Shakir.
Many more complications ensue and to say anything about where it goes from here would undermine the intention of the episode which, while sticking to its procedural roots, manages deftly to explore the meaning of loyalty, respect and devotion, or lack thereof, to family.
“American Disgrace,” the title is not only acutely apropos of a star’s fall from favor, but in describing the way everyone in this story treats each other; an extremely sad statement about society in general.
Last season, Leight mentioned that upping the ante on the show every week is like giving viewers an addictive drug; the more that’s doled out, that much more is desired week in and week out, the craving never ends. “All of it has something to do with the synapses in the brain needing more and more stimulation, and it’s really a lot of pressure to continue to try to perform at that expected high level,” he admits, ”but I know the actors can do it and that we can achieve it visually, we just have to keep it up in the writing and the way we tell these stories.”
That shouldn’t be too hard, given the fortuitous special abilities those guiding ‘SVU’ seem to possess.
Law & Order SVU “American Disgrace” airs Wednesday at 9/8c on NBC
For a recap of this episode after it airs, please visit The New York Observer at www.observer.com/tv
For more articles about television, please subscribe above to receive an e-mail each time this column is updated with new information. Feel free to submit comments, ideas, or event information via this site, or directly to Anne on Twitter @anne_k_easton