"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" often teases "ripped from the headlines" plots, but it’s the show’s casting of Mike Tyson for Wednesday’s new episode -- titled "Monster's Legacy" -- that has generated headlines since news of his guest appearance broke last month. His role? Reggie Rhodes, a sympathetic victim of child abuse who murdered one of his attackers.
In real life, the former undisputed heavyweight champ was arrested in connection with the rape of an 18-year-old beauty queen, Miss Black America hopeful Desiree Washington, in July of 1991. In February of the following year, he was convicted of one count of rape and two counts of criminal deviate conduct. Tyson served three years in prison for the convictions.
News of his "SVU" part shocked fans of the show, but what better way than during the February sweeps to draw attention to your program? Stunt casting is a tried-and-true tool networks have employed to amp up the ratings.
But inviting "Iron Mike" to “SVU” appears to be particularly scurrilous given the fact that the show has always been an advocate for victims of sexual abuse. Series star Mariska Hargitay, who plays Det. Olivia Benson, even founded Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004 to help heal, educate and empower victims of sexual abuse. (According to the Washington Post, the organization has opted to disassociate itself from the casting decision.)
Interestingly on Wednesday's episode, Benson -- always a huge advocate for the rape victims -- appears to work hard to get viewers to see Tyson's Rhodes as the victim:
Casting such a high-profile sex offender -- one who continues to deny his guilt -- in a sympathetic role has been more than some can stomach. That includes the more than 15,000 people who have signed a Change.org petition to reconsider the casting.
Creator/producer Dick Wolf put aside such concerns when he released a statement earlier about the episode that didn’t address the issue of hiring Tyson:
I invite you to watch Emmy Award winners Ed Asner and Andre Braugher, and Mike Tyson guest star in the “Monster's Legacy” episode of “Law & Order: SVU.” It focuses on what can happen when there is an emotionally charged rush to judgment and it is, in my opinion, one of our strongest episodes in the last five years.
The episode was originally scheduled for Feb. 13, the eve of the global event One Billion Rising, which supports rape and abuse survivors. "Monster's Legacy" was moved up to Feb. 6 with no explanation given. NBC denies that there is any connection.
The network is not allowing interviews at this point with any of the cast or producers. It would be nice to hear their reasoning in casting Tyson, and if it indeed went past the intention to cause controversy.
As such, we can only go by producer Warren Leight’s series of seven tweets on Jan. 12:
Even if those discussions lead to the inevitable conclusion that no matter how well intentioned a series can be, producers might still pull a few tricks out from their sleeves to jolt ratings.
"Law & Order: SVU" airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.
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