Joe Biden’s appearance on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit makes a certain sort of sense within the media strategy of the Obama administration. The president has been unusually visible across pop culture, including daytime and late-night talk shows, in order to communicate with audiences who don’t necessarily read print media or watch Sunday morning public-affairs shows. Along with First Lady Michelle Obama, Biden has joined in, appearing on Parks & Recreation, Jeopardy and this year’s Academy Awards.
Biden used his Oscars appearance, introducing Lady Gaga’s performance of a song about campus rape, to reaffirm the song’s anti-assault message. In that case, his message resonated beautifully with the medium. On SVU, though, he fit in clumsily. He was perfectly fine, but the lurid and gratuitous SVU was a strange place to try to share an affirming message.
The Vice-President appeared only at the top of the show, delivering a monologue about rape as the most heinous crime of all. “The greatest abuse of power is rape,” he intoned to a roomful of cops. “It takes a woman a long time to heal. When a victim isn’t believed, when she goes through the invasive process of having a rape kit put together, and then it’s stuck on the shelf somewhere, and then the rape kit is never, ever tested, we fail her.” In a twist, it turned out he was there to announce the cops of the Special Victims Unit had not failed, and in fact their working through the backlog of rape kits had led to the exoneration of an innocent man, jailed 16 years for rape.
Once Biden, having delivered his appreciation of Olivia Benson and her colleagues, leaves the scene, the plot wends forward in that lurching Law & Order way. It turns out the innocent man the SVU freed went on to rape and kill the daughter of the woman who’d wrongfully accused him 16 years prior; he wasn’t guilty then, but he certainly is now.
That the episode’s title was “Making a Rapist” made the parallels to Netflix’s Making a Murderer even more obvious than they already were; in this case, though, there was little of the ambiguity that Netflix’s series strived for. Our perp’s depravity may have been forged in prison, but by episode’s end, it’s all too apparent that he’s barely human, as he delivers a lengthy monologue in the courtroom about how rape and murder was a young woman’s due punishment for disrespecting him. The victim’s mother’s denial of his culpability, for fear that she’d make a mistake a second time, comes close on the show’s part to victim-blaming. It all generates a great deal of heat, but little light.
It’s hardly anything new to suggest there’s something a bit troubling about the long success of SVU, a show that has wrung 18 seasons’ worth of pulse-pounding drama out of the greatest violation a person can endure. But the placement of Biden’s heartfelt monologue about how cops need to do better as the lead-in to an episode of television that depicted the bruised and bloodied cadaver of a pretty young rape victim cast the show’s particular trickiness into relief. SVU is a show about a tough-minded female cop who works tirelessly to get justice for the victims of sexual assault; it’s also a show that, year after year, blows out those assaults into an evening’s entertainment.
Biden’s intentions are evidently pure, and his message came through, in his brief appearance, loud and clear—although it’s unlikely that anyone watching SVU is unaware of a national rape crisis. But there might have been a more apt venue to carry this message across. The hour of TV that followed was on-message, in a sense. Its twists and turns delivered the realization that, had the victim’s rape kit been appropriately dealt 16 years prior, none of this would have happened.
But its heightened sense of drama—with the most ironic sort of consequences for past failures of the legal system falling upon her and her daughter—were unbecoming of a show that keeps insisting it has something substantial to say about rape. If SVU wants to tell stories that derive their tension and their thrill from intense, visceral depictions of assault, that’s its right. But the notion that there’s a greater social good here, as suggested by Biden’s cameo, is a bit spurious. With a long run and countless hours a season to depict rape and its consequences, the show tends to default to lavish attention on bruised, beaten bodies. The show’s own power, proven by how willing our Vice President was to use it as a pulpit, could be put to much better use.