If May’s season finale of Law & Order: SVU was meant to send a message, it was received loud-and-clear. The shocking cliffhanger (a dead hooker in the bed of Dann Florek’s Captain Cragen) was a drastic departure for the long-running procedural. Viewers can thank showrunner Warren Leight for this dramatic turn of events. Leight stepped into the show amidst its biggest shake-up ever: Christopher Meloni’s highly publicized departure after 12 years. “Any show on this long would have needed to change, some rejuvenation,” affirms Leight, “and [Chris] leaving, in a way, opened up a lot of new possibilities. The thing that you worry about most is the thing that often works in your favor.”
Heading into season 14, which premieres tonight. SVU has some momentum to maintain. Leight is confident that introducing some new faces (Paget Brewster, Adam Baldwin) and dynamics (key word: suspicion) will be just the trick. If the show’s performance as NBC’s highest-rated drama finale last season is any indication, he may be on to something. Read what Leight has in store for SVU’s double-barrel opener below, plus see how a certain ultra-popular erotic novel makes its way onto the show.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve been very conscious that SVU is the last Law & Order show on the air. With a year under your belt and a season underway, how is SVU 2.0 shaping up?
WARREN LEIGHT: This year, I’ve made some changes in the writing staff, the producing staff. Everyone understands what the goal is for this year. … So, just in terms of the way we run the show, people are a little more on. I know who my actors are, they know who I am. It’s easier to write for people when you knew what their strengths are. I know everyone’s strengths, and now what I want to do a bit of this year is make some of the actors feel a little bit uncomfortable, push them out of their comfort zone. Last year I had to learn their comfort zone so this year I can tear them down. [Laughs]
You said everyone on the writing/producing staff had the same goal in mind. What is that goal?
I don’t want anyone to look at this show 14 years in and go, “Oh, this is tired,” or “They’re going through the motions.” I want people to go, “This is as fresh as anything that’s on right now.”
Certainly, the end of last season was a big departure with the Cragen cliffhanger…
I wanted a cliffhanger, and that was definitely not part of the [creator and former showrunner] Dick Wolf culture. It was outside what people expect for the show. A little bit, I want to shake up expectations. There will be more storylines about our lead characters, a little bit more emotion between them. I would like to see more of the interpersonal dynamic between our detectives. There’s obviously going to be a big investigation after the dead hooker is found in Cragen’s bed, and there’s going to be a lot of fallout from that investigation.
You said everyone has secrets. Such as…?
[This season tracks] a tale of corruption through NYPD, through the DA’s office, through the upper echelons of government. How our detectives react to that, and who’s trusting whom as this investigation goes on is pretty interesting. For example, it’s not like Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Amaro (Danny Pino) have been partners for 12 years and know everything about each other, so there’s a little room for suspicion. Room for suspicion is a wedge.
And you’re really ripping their worlds apart.
Even if they did trust each other, this would be a massive ground shift.
It’s never good when your boss is arrested, is found in bed with a dead hooker. That’s never good. Especially if he’s the captain of your unit at the NYPD.
I know Paget Brewster is coming in as the head of the D.A.’s Public Integrity Unit. I’m sure she’s going to shake things up a little bit…
That is to the DA’s office what IAB is to cops. They watch everything. They know everything. … Paget is stepping into a war between two escort agencies. She’s stepping into four or five unsolved murders. It begins with the police commissioner’s bachelor party. She’s got to figure out who to trust – and fast. Benson wants to earn her trust because she’s hoping maybe Paget will realize Cragen is innocent – as Benson knows Cragen must be. Paget is looking desperately for someone. … The two of them, basically, are trying to work together. Benson is trying to work with her in hopes of proving Cragen’s innocence, and Paget is trying to enlist her support because she doesn’t have too many other people she can trust.
We’re also bringing Adam Baldwin in as a new captain. He’s a substitute or temporary captain, but he’s stepping into a unit that’s openly in revolt, basically. … He’s going to try and start to put his own imprint on this department. [It’ll] push people a little bit out of their comfort zones.
NEXT: A closer look at Olivia’s arc, and – you knew it was coming – SVU takes on 50 Shades of Grey