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Warren Leight

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Law & Order: SVU -- A Look Inside the Season

Posted: 04/25/2012 9:19 am

It's been an explosive year in the SVU squad room. Detective Stabler departed just before I took over as showrunner. Two engaging new detectives, Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish) and Nick Amaro (Danny Pino), came in. Two great ADAs (Cabot and Novak) returned. Even with the turnover, I wondered at first how we'd keep a 12-year-old show relevant. I brought in dozens of experts to talk to our writers' room. We began to plot. And then something strange began to happen ... out there. All summer long, week after week, stories broke about powerful men behaving badly or abusing their power. Sometimes we were ripping from the headlines, but just as often it felt like the headlines were ripping from us. Either way, we were trying to explore issues that were increasingly in the zeitgeist.

Our season premiere, "Scorched Earth," in which a foreign diplomat allegedly raped a hotel maid, contained fictional twists that "came to life" as the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn continued to unfold. We actually had to rewrite several times when real twists in the case broke that too closely mirrored those of our script.

Another episode, "Personal Fouls," focused on a high school basketball coach who had been molesting the young boys in his summer leagues -- including some who went on to be NBA all-stars. The episode aired about four weeks before the case against Jerry Sandusky at Penn State broke in the news, followed by a number of similar stories at high schools and colleges across the country. This episode, like many others, helped raise awareness of the challenges faced by survivors and law enforcement in these complicated cases.

This year's squad room shake-up also allowed us to take Detective Olivia Benson to exciting and unfamiliar places. Though she has by now developed a solid partnership with Detective Amaro, she initially reacted to Stabler's departure by becoming a bit of a lone wolf in the squad. Her "untethered" emotional state opened her up to new experiences and new points of view. Her friendship with defense attorney Bayard Ellis (Andre Braugher) has given her more perspective on the cases she investigates, forcing her to examine both sides before rushing to judgment. Her relationship with David Haden (Harry Connick Jr.), her first serious love interest in years, has allowed her to take a step back and examine her life choices, her career, and her own happiness for a change. And while she continues to teach and learn from her new co-workers, she hasn't forgotten the lessons she learned from her old partner. She can still be tough when needed.

This week's episode, "Street Revenge," is a perfect example of Benson showing her muscle. While running the investigation of a high-profile serial rapist, Benson takes on a new leadership role as spokesperson for the Special Victims Unit, working to catch the rapist, support his victims, and keep an outraged community calm, all at the same time. And when she's out in the field, she hasn't forgotten how to use force -- when necessary.

It's been a fresh and surprising season, for those working on the show as well as those watching. Following -- and sometimes leading -- the news cycle has provided inspiration for unique stories as well as the chance to tackle some controversial issues: We've looked at the culpability of perpetrators with diminished brain capacity; the risk of coerced confessions that can put innocent people in prison; the unprecedented expansion of New York's DNA database; the use of back-page ads to facilitate sex trafficking.

The opportunity to reboot a long-running show by introducing new characters and exploring new sides of familiar ones wasn't just a bonus; it was the foundation on which we built our stories and ripped from the headlines. At the end of the day, episodes don't work if they are only about issues. We have to tell stories about real people -- victims, survivors, criminals -- and about the toll these cases take on the "dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies."

 
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