The Law & Order franchise is always warning us that the story it’s about to tell “is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event.” This, of course, is the show’s rightful declaration of creative license—but some episodes have tested the boundaries between the fictional and the actual more liberally than others. Law & Order: SVU has, for instance, done rather thinly veiled episodes pertaining to Michael Jackson’s child molestation charges, the Jerry Sandusky trial, and, now, the complicated relationship between the singers Rihanna and Chris Brown.
Out of all its “ripped from the headlines” narratives, however, this one may just be the most absurdly executed. While dealing with very serious subject matter—domestic violence, SVU’s forte—the story is presented with a cheesiness of Lifetime movie proportions. In one of the first scenes, young superstars Micha Green and Caleb Bryant (the latter, of course, has initials that not-so-subtly match Brown’s) record a dreadful ballad while looking at each other adoringly, as everyone else in the booth nods approvingly. It only takes a few moments for things to go downhill—while still in the studio, Micha walks in on Caleb shamelessly flirting with a background singer. “Who you stepping to?” asks Caleb. “You,” she smirks. “With this…beefcake cookie.”
I have no idea what a beefcake cookie is, and perhaps this was the writers’ way of implying that Micha’s not as cool as the image she projects for her fans. But that’s probably giving them too much credit—it’s an embarrassingly laughable exchange that immediately precedes a harrowing moment, when Caleb beats her as others in the studio look on. And while guest stars are de rigeur for the show, they kicked it up a notch for this episode: Dave Navarro, Perez Hilton, and Wendy Williams all make cameos as fictional characters or themselves, blending in an ounce of meta in an apparent effort to heighten the show’s realism. But the combination of after-school-special dialogue, gimmicky casting, and an attempted critique of the entertainment industry feels weird and unsettling.
The actors portraying the central characters aren’t great, especially when they’re onscreen together. But the episode does manage to paint Brown (er, Bryant) fairly convincingly as a misogynistic, raging idiot with nary a filter. “Call my Jew” in Bryant language means that he wants his lawyer (played, in another distracting if still sort of delightful bit of casting, by Jeffrey Tambor). And when Caleb leaves the courtroom, he offers his fans this groan-inducing line: “Y’all know me. I’m a lover, not a fighter.” The writers were on the ball in terms of the singer’s persona, at least.
But since this is SVU, they took it one step further. In addition to all the familiar beats of the media coverage, we get the added twist that (spoiler alert) two people wind up dead: Micha’s producer (a loose stand-in for Jay-Z, perhaps?) and Micha herself.
Some may argue whether this goes too far—Rihanna is still very much alive, and exploiting the real-life story in this way can seem morbid and distasteful. But SVU has always addressed issues that pertain to women’s safety, even if it doesn’t always succeed and sometimes veers towards the sentimental. To its credit, this episode does try to point out many of the problems with our culture’s usual reactions to domestic violence, especially the way in which some take the side of the aggressor, or those closest to the victim sometimes stay silent.
Still, the way it ends (which is also the way it begins) is admittedly rather maudlin. Nine-year-old Micha sings for a camcorder the same song that becomes her duet with Caleb—and we’re supposed to be taken in by her innocence and haunted by how little of her life has been lived. When I heard the piano come in at the end (it was absent when the song played in the opening), I half-expected the camera to freeze on her smiling face before fading to credits just to drive the point home. Ultimately, SVU’s handling of the plot was less bothersome than its over-the-top style.