(The Root) — Love will forever be the stuff of picture-perfect movie endings, epic novels and the entirety of Adele's musical catalog. Whether someone's finding it, losing it or longing for it, love is at the center of every good story ever told — and the more tragic the love, the more often the story gets retold.
On Wednesday night, NBC's Law & Order: SVU capitalized on our collective fascination with love gone wrong in the ripped-from-the-headlines episode "My Funny Valentine," based none too loosely on singers Rihanna and Chris Brown's on-again, off-again affair. Despite the show's omnipresent opening disclaimer — "The following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event" — a week before the episode aired, fans were already buzzing about whether it was too much, too soon.
The plot of "My Funny Valentine" centers on rising pop star Micha Green and her hot-tempered hip-hop boyfriend, Caleb Bryant. They're young, rich and dangerously in love. Trouble starts when Micha, fresh from recording a duet that's certain to launch the sweet-faced teenagers into superstardom, catches Caleb flirting with a backup singer. She confronts Caleb, jokingly dismissing the other woman as a "beef cookie," and the rapper "goes off," which in this particular scene means screaming, cursing, punching and choking.
The story of fame and dangerous love is so boilerplate it's almost boring to see played out over and over again with each new generation's pre-eminent bad girl or boy poster child. Ike and Tina. Sid and Nancy. Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston. But in "My Funny Valentine," Law & Order: SVU pulls back the lens to examine not just the abuse but also how the "love hurts" mythology feeds into a popular obsession with tragedy.
This wasn't about rehashing and recasting the gruesome tale of what happened between Rihanna and Brown in that car the night before the Grammys in 2009 merely for its own sake. At its best — "beef cookie" quip aside — the episode was like a Foursquare app, mapping the intersection of bad behavior, voyeurism and capitalism.
At the beginning, our favorite detectives are starting to question the handful of people who were in the room when Caleb attacked Micha. No one talks. No one wants to "get involved." Not even when Detective Olivia Benson shows one witness a cellphone picture of Micha's battered and bruised face.
No one's talking — that is, until that same picture ends up on the front page of the New York Post with the headline, "Beauty and the Beating." After that, everyone jumps into the conversation — from Wendy Williams to Caleb's Twitter fans known as "the Bryant team," and very obviously a play on Brown's own aggressive online posse of devotees, "Team Breezy." It's as if this is all just sport, as if condoning or condemning domestic violence is as insouciant as rooting for your favorite team.
"We are talking about two people who are very much in love," drones the defense attorney in the episode.
"And love hurts, right?" asks the judge.
Ironically, the "love hurts" mythology only gets multiplied when chopped down to the sound bites of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Go ahead and search the "#TeamBreezy" hashtag on a given news cycle. I dare you. Be forewarned that many of the tweets will be illegible to anyone over 30, written as they so often are in the cutesy emoticon hieroglyphics of teenage girls. But even grown women get in on the act.
While watching the "My Funny Valentine" and taking notes on all the scenes where love and its inherent difficulties were mentioned, I couldn't help thinking of a particular scene in ABC's hit Scandal. You know, the one where Olivia Pope finally breaks if off with Edison, the nice-guy senator.
"I want painful, difficult, devastating, life-changing, extraordinary love. Don't you want that, too?" says Olivia.
"Love is not supposed to be painful or devastating. Love isn't supposed to hurt, Liv," says Edison before leaving, perhaps for good.
The thing is, it's not just Olivia Pope, a fictional character on a wildly addictive TV show, who wants "painful, difficult, devastating." We all do. Or, more specifically, we all want to watch that, whether it's on TV or in real life. And in a marketplace where reality and fiction are purposely conflated by the real people who define themselves as brands, the distinction between what is ideal and what is idolized no longer matters as long as consumers stay brand-loyal.
So the message at the end of the Law & Order: SVU episode was a mixed one. In the end, Caleb and Micha, back together in Bermuda, get into one final fight. The next morning, Micha's lifeless body is found floating in the water near their yacht. The show never actually shows what happened. Nobody saw anything, but we're all watching.