11/21/2013 11:27 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

SVU Convicts Jodi Arias in Effigy

In a riveting riff on the Jodi Arias case, last night's SVU was smart, fast-moving, and got a lot right. It was also the rare episode where the real-life headlines were more lurid than the episode it inspired. A good chunk of the Arias trial was too explicit to air on NBC's prime time.


Amanda finally seems to have her act together: attending AA meetings and dating a cute guy named Nate. But scratch the surface and things aren't so pretty.

Amanda doesn't have a drinking problem; her addiction is gambling. She's only attending Alcoholics Anonymous to support Nate, who is also her Gamblers Anonymous sponsor. See, Nate is not only a "double winner" -- dealing with both addictions -- he's a "thirteen-stepper," using the programs to seduce nubile newbies like Amanda. Worse, Nate is sleeping with a lovely alcoholic named Lena. He doesn't mention this to Amanda, who unwittingly befriends her romantic rival.

Lena, meanwhile, is caught in a dysfunctional relationship with a diaper salesman named Gene, who's engaged to someone else. One night, Lena shows up at Amanda's doorstep, crying that Gene raped her.

But soon Lena's story falls apart. She'd had consensual sex with Gene earlier that day. And immediately before the "rape" that night, Gene texted her to describe all the kinky things he wanted to do to her. "That's so humiliating," she texted back. "I love it." The "rape" consisted of everything they'd just texted.

ADA Barba wisely declines to prosecute the rape case. Lena is enraged, and Gene is soon thrown off of Lena's 6-story apartment building. Forensics show that he'd received oral sex moments before his plummet. "He came and he went," the ME deadpans.

Lena cycles through a few stories before finally admitting that she brought Gene to the roof ledge, fellated him, then shoved him to his death. But, she says, he was an abusive guy. She pushed him because he was getting rough with her on the roof. It was self-defense.

Barba charges her with murder. At trial, he proves that, despite her meek testimony and new librarian glasses, Lena is a cold-hearted killer who meticulously planned Gene's murder out of jealousy.

And part of her plan included enlisting Nate to get Amanda on her side so Lena would prevail with her false rape charges.

Lena is convicted, but Amanda is devastated. Cragen tells her to hang in there, which is easy for him to say -- he's finally dating a lovely, age-appropriate non-hooker. Amanda turns down Ice-T's offer to get a beer and instead goes solo to a smoky casino, where her repeated calls for the dealer to "hit me" seem like a form of self-punishment.

Verdict: A

(My husband and I were so riveted, we forgot we had a pint of Haagen Daz sea-salt caramel gelato in our freezer. That's a good show.)

What they got right:

Much of the dialogue was taken directly from the Jodi Arias trial, which was so sexually explicit and gory, the real testimony would have been censored from any fictional TV show. Wild Jodi did things for her boyfriend, Travis Alexander, which his other girlfriends, nice Mormon girls, refused. And (to the delight of Headline News) she taped some of them. When Travis broke up with her and invited another woman on a tropical vacation, Jodi stabbed and shot him to death, then lied repeatedly about what happened. When her bloody handprint was found on his wall, Jodi finally manufactured a battered woman's defense, to the chagrin of many professionals who have handled real cases of battered women. And like Lena tonight, Jodi's librarian glasses and meek performance couldn't save her from the overwhelming evidence of her guilt.

If you don't mind strong language, check out this parody of Jodi's testimony, and enjoy the similarities to Lena's role tonight.

I also appreciated Olivia's stance at the beginning, before we knew Lena was a conniving liar. Just because a woman has had sex with a man consensually, doesn't mean she consented to a later encounter, even if it was just a few hours later that day. Every person had a right to say yes or no to every encounter; each choice must be respected.

Barba made some good choices tonight. After he discovered Lena's omissions, lies, and sultry texts, the rape case was over. But he offered counseling and help with a restraining order. Additionally, he was correct to note that, although organizations like AA offer confidentiality, that does not confer a legal privilege. Although members generally obey a code not to reveal each other's identities, that code is not like a preist-penitent relationship -- a prosecutor may question members about it.

What they got wrong:

Amanda needed to get off the case before the second commercial break. She was not only friends with the players, she was a player herself. She'd had dinner with the murder suspect and victim a few nights before the murder. The final shocking end -- where we learn that Lena set up Amanda -- pretty efficiently demonstrated why detectives are not allowed to investigate their friends.

I wish real trials could proceed the way SVU ones do -- as if there were no rules against hearsay (which is an out-of-court statement admitted to prove the truth of the matter asserted). Personally, I find hearsay to be some of the most interesting and illuminating evidence. Folks are sometimes more truthful before they put their hand on that Bible and swear to tell the truth. Nevertheless, there are rules against hearsay (and rules providing the defendant a right to confront her accuser). In real life, the fiancée could not testify that Gene told her he was scared of Lena.

What do you think, SVU fans? Leave your comments!