Wednesday night’s episode of Law & Order: SVU used their tried-and-true formula of fictionalizing real-life stories of creeps (Terry Richardson, frat bros, Gamergaters, Anthony Weiner). This time the procedural turned its gaze to “HNT” and its boss “Harold Coyle.”
“The Newsroom” (synopsis: “a high-profile news anchor accuses her boss of rape”) came with the usual disclaimer (“The following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person, event or entity”), and set things up dramatically: blonde, leggy and beautiful HNT anchor Heidi Sorenson (played by Bonnie Sommerville) is doing an interview with her co-host George Thanos (Mark Moses). The pair are talking to an actress who recently revealed that her co-star raped her, and Olivia Benson is on set to provide context and expertise about sexual assault. During the segment, Heidi snaps at George after he says he can’t imagine what the actress has gone through: “Of course you can’t George, it never happened to you.”
Immediately after they break for commercial, Heidi reveals to Olivia that she was raped by HNT CEO Harold Coyle. From then on, they drop crumbs about what this supposedly fictional man is like: he forces his woman employees to strip, tapes them, and tells them they have to provide him sexual favors to move forward at the network. “Harold Coyle values three things in a female anchor: high cheekbones, long legs, and how willing she is to get down on her knees,” George says. “He’s a paranoid egomaniac who has information on everyone.”
The network is only lightly suggested as having a conservative slant. “We’ll be back after the break with our special guest, Karl Rove,” George says at the end of the segment at the top of the episode. There’s a heated conversation between Olivia and Chief Dodds about the channel’s power, and a reference to the fact that HNT has “friends in the current administration” that could make life hard for the Special Victims Unit. At one point, Coyle subtly mimic’s Fox’s slogans (“Fair and Balanced” and “Real Journalism”) by saying “I just want to remind you that this organization is in the business of exposing and uncovering the truth.”
At first, Heidi doesn’t want to talk to Olivia, but she eventually agrees to, and several other women come forward, spurred on after another young, beautiful woman anchor, Margery Evans (Peyton List)—whom Heidi says she confided in about Coyle—defends him, and gets promoted. Most devastatingly, we learn that the husband of a former employee of the network alleges that Coyle raped his wife and she eventually died by suicide.
Time, of course, is no problem in SVU’s world: things that would normally take months if not years whip on by. While the other women who have accused Coyle of a variety of inappropriate things decide to pursue a civil case, Heidi is soon on the witness stand in her criminal trial against him. At first, George begrudgingly agrees to testify on her behalf, but pulls back after he finds out the network is threatening to go after his daughter.
Most of the episode goes on as expected. The only point at which things devolve into fantasy land is at the end: we find out that Margery too has been a victim of Coyle’s. When she tries to see if he’ll give her “her tapes” back as an act of good faith because she has lied for him, he refuses, and goes for her. We then see that she’s been taping their whole exchange, evidence that is then used to get Heidi and the other women a settlement, and Coyle 18 months in jail.
The idea that a man of Coyle’s stature would actually go to jail for any amount of time is highly unlikely. The NYPD has, at least to public knowledge, not investigated the culture at Fox News, though clearly the settlements the network has doled out mirror reality. SVU didn’t touch on any alleged pervasiveness of harassment around the network, but they did handle the way power and pressure works quite well, particularly in their depiction of HNT’s highly aggressive legal team. Perhaps most importantly, while Christopher McDonald (who plays Coyle) is far more attractive than Roger Ailes, I’m not sure I’ll ever get the image of him licking his lips out of my head. It was, quite effectively, very very creepy.