Tonight on Law & Order: SVU, you can watch convicted rapist Mike Tyson portray a victim of rape. It’s a perfectly competent performance, even if it doesn’t require Tyson to do much more than be a variation on himself, a tough man who tends to speak, in public, in a soft voice. (Though he does one growling “Get outta here!” quite convincingly.) Still, this is stunt-casting operating at a nervy level of cynicism.
Tyson was convicted of the rape of 18 year-old Desiree Washington in 1992; he served three years in prison. It’s possible, certainly, to look at Tyson as a man who’s received his punishment, has paid his debt to society, is free to seek work as the celebrity he is. I freely admit it: I enjoyed him in The Hangover.
On the other hand: This SVU gig of his is pretty creepy. Unlike The Hangover, it takes a specifically horrible event in Tyson’s life and uses it as a viewer draw: Let’s see Mike Tyson — excuse me, “Reggie” — as a man who was raped repeatedly as a child and is now serving time in jail for murder, convicted under dubious ethical circumstances. The episode invites the simultaneous reaction: Awww, poor guy, followed by, wait, do I really want to feel sorry — even while aware that he’s just playing a role — for someone who was convicted of a crime that could be (and for all I know, was) a “ripped from the headlines” SVU storyline, one in which he’d be the perp, not the victim? That’s the thing about pop culture: We bring to it everything we know about a performer’s personal life; it inevitably plays a part in how we analyze the work of that performer, in any field.
The SVU episode tonight isn’t even primarily about Tyson’s character. Guest star Ed Asner gets more screen time than Tyson. SVU‘s guest casting over the years has been very impressive. But, also over the years, I’ve started thinking that this Big Name Star or that one is perhaps attracted to appearing on the show as a one-time thing because the scripts are frequently well-written, and the show carries with it another implicit message which can be attractive to an actor — that in taking a role on SVU, even when you’re portraying a criminal, you’re contributing to the most high-minded mission of the show, which is to cast light on, as the voice-over says, particularly “heinous” crimes.
Actors who parachute in to SVU for a week can understandably feel this way. But, taken as a series that has aired since 1999, staffed by many extremely talented writer-producers including, at present, showrunner Warren Leight, SVU has long struck me as, week-in and week-out, one of the most depressing shows on TV, one that feeds on people’s lurid imaginations of dreadful scenarios as much as it stands for bringing knowledge of predatory crimes and enlightenment about how to constructively deal with the crimes and their victims. SVU, for me, is also one of the least convincing in the sense of how frozen in emotional amber most of its main characters are, eternally appalled, baffled, and/or outraged that these crimes which comprise their daily beat continue to occur. (The superb comedian and writer John Mulaney has a terrific stand-up routine about this, which you can see here.)
I watched tonight’s episode of SVU because Mike Tyson was going to be playing this role — I was curious. I imagine millions of people will do the same.