Mashing up Paula Deen, the Trayvon Martin trial and the NYPD's controversial stop-and-frisk practices in one episode might seem like a stretch, but Law & Order: SVU executive producer Warren Leight says it makes sense.
"They're seemingly different stories, but they all involve race," Leight says of the episode, which airs Oct. 2 at 9/8c on NBC. "Clearly race is the issue that does not go away. I would suspect that part of the reason the government shutdown is happening is that people are still uncomfortable with an African American president, six years in. Everyone tip toes around it."
In the SVU episode, Cybill Shepherd plays celebrity Southern chef Jolene Castille, who finds herself on a deserted street in New York. Fearing that she's being pursued and about to be raped, Castille shoots an unarmed teenager wearing a hoodie. Was it self-defense? Jeffrey Tambor plays her attorney, while Leslie Odom, Jr. (Smash) guest stars as a minister. Leight spoke with TV Guide Magazine about the episode and the reaction by pundits and the public before it even airs.
TV Guide Magazine: Where did you come up with the idea to combine very different stories?
Warren Leight: We've been talking for a long time, how do we do an episode about racial profiling in New York? And there was the Zimmerman story and a few others about this whole issue of standing your ground. We wanted to do something about that. And because it's SVU, we needed to have a sex crime going. Our guys can't cover a regular robbery/murder. Then the Paula Deen story broke. There are a lot of celebrities who engage in bad behavior, but it was interesting to see how quickly all the corporate sponsors turned on her, when other people get away with much more. We kept thinking, there's something interesting going on. It all seemed to be stewing together. I realized, this is how you do it. You have a woman walking home, alone at night, and you have a suspect that police are searching for who's a black male. She sees a black male youth, thinks she's in danger of being raped, shoots, and then we find out it wasn't the rapist.
TV Guide Magazine: There were so many issues you're dealing with in this episode, I imagine its tough to address them all in 42 minutes.
Leight: It's always a challenge, 42 minutes is always a harness. How do you begin to explore America's history of racial profiling, bias, celebrity and stop and frisk, all in 42 minutes? But I think we pulled it off.
TV Guide Magazine: How does this impact the world of SVU?
Leight: This is an election year for the district attorney of New York. So our new ADA Rafael Barba (Raúl Esparza) is getting a lot of pressure from upstairs. When the case gets politicized, suddenly his boss the DA, who we never meet, is leaning on Barba heavily as the case breaks. It's a political hot potato. We have a black minister played by Leslie Odom Jr. from Smash, who's terrific as Rev. Curtis speaking out for the family. All the elements are there for good drama: The grieving parents, the woman alone in fear for her life, the community members and citizens upset that someone may be getting away with murder. It's a classic setup for a drama.
TV Guide Magazine: How did Cybill Shepherd wind up playing this Paula Deen-like character?
Leight: She was our first choice. We needed someone who, the second you see her, you believe is a celebrity. And Cybill just is. It's very hard for someone to act famous. And she immediately brought that. You also want to care for her. It's never black and white. I don't want to particularly demonize anyone. Let's assume she had reason to be in fear for her life. Let's say she's a complicated person. She grew up in the South with a certain racial understanding that may be out of date. I wanted somebody who could give us layers. You're sympathetic to her and you're suspicious of her.
TV Guide Magazine: It would have been easy to descend into a parody.
Leight: And that's not what we're going for here. On the surface she's sweet and charming but then there's another side to her. There's one scene at the end that takes another turn. So I needed somebody to give us a lot of layers.
TV Guide Magazine: What's the reaction from people who have seen the episode?
Leight: Some people watch it and they know from the get go that she shot him in cold blood and she should do time. Some people watch it and know from the get go that she was completely within her rights and that kid was up to no good. It's fascinating to me. It's an episode about the biases we bring to walking on the street of a big city, and the prism from which we view people. I find that so far when people see the episode they bring their same biases or prism to viewing the episode.
TV Guide Magazine: Some have already vilified you for doing this.
Leight:. It's an episode about prejudice and pre-judging, and there are people who haven't seen the episode who are judging the episode. Apparently a number of right wingers believe it's going to be liberal sop. And then there are number of people who side with Trayvon who think it's absolutely disrespectful. But it's a respectful episode at the end of the day. In an ideal world people would see that there's more than one side to this. But people are so polarized. I think it will engender some anger from people who feel it's siding with one side or the other. It's such a loaded topic, I'm not sure everyone will be able to see the episode clearly. But that's one of the points of the episode.
TV Guide Magazine: Are you surprised issues of race are still a hot button, even in 2013?
Leight: A number of people said, "Really, we're still talking about race in 2013?" And I was like, "I'm sorry, I didn't realize we had solved that." It was the deciding issue in the New York City Democratic mayoral primary. When the Zimmerman verdict came out, a lot of people told me, "I wish the Law & Order detectives had covered this case. There would have been justice." But what would our guys have done? And would there be justice? Can you have justice in a case like this? If you look at most scripted drama now, they're running away from this. There are a lot of zombies and superheroes out there. It's good drama but it doesn't want to go near anything. We're the only ones looking at headlines. So we'll keep going until they turn the lights out on us.