As last week's episode of "Private Practice," drew to a close, a key character -- Dr. Charlotte King -- was attacked in her office by a deranged patient. When the ABC drama resumes tonight, viewers will learn that, like millions of real-life American women, Charlotte is a victim of rape.

The follow-up episode, which carries a warning for "violent images," opens with a brief depiction of the assault. It then veers from the television norm by devoting an entire hour to the immediate aftermath of the incident, as told from the victim's point of view.

"You experience her version of the story, as opposed to how the police are dealing with it, or some other outside source," says KaDee Strickland, the actress who plays Charlotte. " ... You see the horror, but you also see the humanity."

"Private Practice" is the latest in a long line of prime-time television shows that have used rape and its related issues as a fodder for dramatic storytelling. The teen series "90210," for example, currently features a character played by AnnaLynne McCord who has fallen into a downward spiral after being raped in a high school classroom by a teacher. Meanwhile, two gritty cable series -- "Dexter" and "Sons of Anarchy" -- contain plot lines pegged to female characters who are victims of gang rape.

And then there's the popular NBC drama "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," which examines sexually based crimes on a routine basis and features a main character -- Mariska Hargitay's Olivia Benson -- who is a child of rape and a victim of sexual assault.

"Clearly, this subject matter still draws audiences," says Lisa M. Cuklanz, a Boston College professor and author of "Rape on Prime Time: Television, Masculinity and Sexual Violence." "It's dramatic, emotionally challenging and potentially controversial without touching on elements of party politics, as an issue such as abortion does."

Rape on TV, of course, is nothing new. One of the earliest and most controversial depictions in a recurring series aired on "All in the Family" in the 1970s when Edith Bunker narrowly escaped a serial rapist. And the original "Beverly Hills 90210" explored the subject long before its contemporary spinoff. Daytime TV also has a long tradition of examining the issue.

In recent years, Cuklanz says, television has brought more nuance to its depictions of rape, and expanded its scope by examining subjects such as date and acquaintance rape. "Mad Men," for example, generated talk two seasons ago when Joan (Christina Hendricks) was raped by her fiance during an office party.

Television, Cuklanz, adds, has the ability to trump the movies when it comes to plots involving rape because it can follow up on a character or case long after the initial crime -- as "Private Practice" plans to do this season with the Charlotte plot line.

"This offers the potential for subtlety, changes of point of view and character growth over time that are not easily accomplished in film," she says.

With its substantial audiences, television also has the ability to raise awareness and educate the masses about issues pertaining to sexual abuse, according to Katherine Hull, a spokeswoman for RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). She cites an episode of the teen cable series "DeGrassi" last year that triggered a "500 percent increase" in calls to the organization's help hot lines.

"It just goes to show the power that the entertainment media can wield," says Hull, who cites statistics that one in six women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. "TV plot lines can trigger memories and inspire somebody to take that first step toward getting help."

Earlier, this season, "Law & Order: SVU" brought attention to the backlog of untested rape kits -- a problem that plagues many big-city police departments. In an episode guest-starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, police struggle to bring a serial rapist to justice largely because evidence had been tainted or lost.

"SVU" executive producer Neal Baer says he was inspired to do the episode after hearing a grim true-life tale of a woman whose life had been "dominated" by a serial rapist.

"Hopefully," he says, "it will galvanize people to go to their city councils and police departments to do something about the rape-kit problem."

In portraying rape, Baer says "SVU" strives to avoid showing the acts of violence on camera and instead focus on the "psychological aspect and complex issues" tied to a case. He says the subject will continue to be a major story thread this season. This week's episode focused on a rape-and-murder case that will have "terrible repercussions" for Hargitay's Olivia.

Hargitay is a prime example of how a show's subject matter can impact one of its stars in a positive way. In 2004, she launched the Joyful Heart Foundation, a group dedicated to empowering victims of assault and abuse. In a message on the foundation's website, Hargitay writes that her "eyes were opened" not just by the show's scripts, but by the many e-mails she received from viewers "disclosing their stories of abuse, many for the first time."

Says Baer, "Mariska is a very empathetic person on camera and in real life. She walks the walk."

Likewise, Strickland says she has been deeply affected by the rape storyline that launches on "Private Practice" tonight. While preparing for the role, she worked closely with RAINN, which put her in touch with two rape survivors.

"We did our homework. We tried to be as truthful and respectful as we could," she says of the episode written by executive producer Shonda Rhimes. "I believe survivors are going to be very pleased that they're going to be heard."

Strickland is also "thrilled" that television is dealing with issues surrounding rape and sexual assault ("It's getting out there more. It's a positive sea change."). And she vows that "Private Practice" won't step "gingerly" around the subject.

"Unfortunately, there continues to be a stigma attached to it. Some people don't even want to talk about it," she says. "But this is stuff we need to hear. If we can help open a dialogue, or prompt people to go to the phone and get help, that would be awesome."

Read Chuck Barney's TV blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/tv and follow him at http://twitter.com/chuckbarney.

TV SHOW

WHAT: "Private Practice"
WHEN: 10 tonight
WHERE: Channels 7 and 10 (ABC)