Trayvon Martin-Inspired ‘Law & Order: SVU’: Too Soon?

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  • If Paula Deen and George Zimmerman had a child, it would probably be Cybil Shepherd’s character on tonight’s ripped-from-the-headlines episode of “Law & Order: SVU.”

    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.

    Mashing up Paula Deen and the Trayvon Martin trial – not to mention, the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk practices – in one episode might seem like a stretch, but “SVU” executive producer Warren Leight says it makes sense.

    “They’re seemingly different stories, but they all involve race,” Leight tells TV Guide of the episode, which airs tonight (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.”

    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: 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.

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