When Eriq La Salle invited his onetime ERlove interest Michael Michele to a reunion, it was an irresistible offer. Their former producer on the medical show, Neal Baer, now heads up another hit, NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (Tuesdays at 10 pm/ET), and he had asked La Salle to direct the Jan. 9 episode, called "Burned." They both wanted Michele to star. "Michael never had the opportunity to do a role like this, so I knew that would make her very excited and committed," La Salle says.
The dark and twisty episode — La Salle affectionately calls it "The War of the Roses on crack" — traces the bitter and brutal custody-case battle between divorcing couple Valerie and Miles Sennet, played by Michele and Blair Underwood. "The story illustrates the fine line between love and hate in a marriage, and how quickly that line can be crossed," Baer says. "It also reflects on Stabler's disintegrating marriage and on the partnership between Stabler and Benson."
The sex-crime unit is called in when Valerie accuses Miles of rape, which he denies. The allegation sparks a deep disagreement between Stabler (Christopher Meloni) and Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and, says La Salle, "starts ripping their relationship apart, just like the Sennets'."
Despite the intensity and, ultimately, the tragedy of the script, there were a few lighter on-set moments. Michele, the mother of a 2-year-old, swapped baby stories with new mom Hargitay — as well as ER memories. Back before she was an SVU star, Hargitay played Anthony Edwards' girlfriend at County General. And then there was the shower scene. "Eriq kept joking with me because on ER, we had no love scenes, and this time he said, 'I get you in the shower.' I came on set with sneakers, men's running pants and a rubber bra that looked like breasts. I'm like, 'I'm ready for my shower.' He just looked at me and shook his head. I said, 'You know I wasn't stepping out here half-naked!'"
La Salle admits, "I drove Michael crazy at times. All the years on ER, she wouldn't let me boss her around. I figured, if I'm a director, at least it's legitimate." Despite their "bickering like brother and sister," Michele says their long-lived friendship has survived. The experience, says La Salle, who is currently developing his own show for CBS, was "amazing and very gratifying. It was the perfect environment for my SVU debut."
Police-drama fans, get an early look at the new season of The Shield in the "2007 Preview" issue of TV Guide, now on newsstands.
Send your comments on this feature to firstname.lastname@example.org.