'Law & Order: SVU' Boss on Team's "Challenging Year" Ahead, New Sergeant and Saying Goodbye

"No one comes out of this season where they were at the beginning. The departure of Amaro sets a lot of things in motion," showrunner Warren Leight tells THR.
Michael Parmelee/NBC

Between holding the second-highest political office in the country and plotting his possible run for president, it's safe to assume Vice President Joe Biden doesn’t have a lot of time to worry about TV spoilers. So when he appeared alongside Law & Order: SVU star and producer Mariska Hargitay at an event earlier this month, Biden unknowingly spilled the beans on Benson's promotion in this coming season.

"As Joe Biden said, 'She's the lieutenant,' " showrunner Warren Leight tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Someone's got to step up and be the sergeant."

Just don't expect anyone from within the ranks to do so, which leaves a major gap in the wake of Nick Amaro's (Danny Pino) decision to step down from the force last May. "There aren’t enough cops. We're down a man," says Leight. "We may be seeing someone new join the force about a quarter of the way through the season."

Leight talked with THR about the squad's "very well-connected" new addition, exploring the Josh Duggar scandal and his last season as showrunner.

What can you say about this new character?

Amaro's departure means an outsider has to come in. Now you're going to have a situation where there's a new person on the floor, whom no one knows or necessarily has confidence in, who's telling Fin, who's been there for 16 years, and Rollins, who's been there for five years, how to handle cases he knows nothing about. We've all had this happen in life, where you have a new boss or a new supervisor, and they don’t know your job as well as you do, but it's their job to tell you what to do. … We've all had that, and to make matters worse, the sergeant is going to have good hooks with NYPD. He's very well-connected, so anything you say can be used against you.

What kind of relationship will he have with Benson?

Our guys trust each other and have each other's backs to varying degrees. Now there's a new person coming in, and nobody knows how much you can rely on him and whether or not he's there as a spy. And that's the question.

Will Tucker be back?

We will be seeing Tucker, Chief Dodds. The first three cases after the premiere involve a transgender kid thrown off of a bridge, a situation where the department of child services has malfunctioned quickly and a kid slips through the cracks as a result, and then we have a really loaded episode sort of based on a lot of these stories we've been reaching about an unarmed black man being shot by the police. So each of these episodes is loaded in different ways with huge political implications, and Barba and our crew will be under intense scrutiny.

Beyond what you just said, what are other real-life stories and headlines you want to tackle or plan to tackle?

It never ceases to amaze me how stupid some men in power can be, and so we'll be writing about [that]. Over the summer, there were some very public stories about religious families with problems at their core, and we might take a look at that. We'll be ripping from a lot of headlines. We will even probably see Dallas Roberts one more time. He's an interesting guy. There are a lot of stories, and we find we do better when we combine them and make our own stew of various stories. Even in the premiere, there are links to [RobertDurst and The Jinx and all of that stuff, but really, it's also a story about our squad. We personalize the story for our squad, so it's not a random millionaire who's doing these crimes; it's someone from within our ranks.

I wanted to ask about the Tucker reappearance because at the end of last season, you hinted at exploring romance for Benson in season 17. Is that something you still want to explore this season?

Sometimes when you're not looking for it is when things start to happen. If you're a single mom, and you have a 2-year-old at home, and you're a police lieutenant, you're probably not on dating sites at that point. You're not swiping [right]. Sometimes when you're in a groove and taking care of your life, that's when something can happen. Tucker — there are possibilities there, or it may be an outsider as well.

The latter would be interesting, since her last relationship was with someone in the NYPD.

The problem is, again, it's hard to meet people. If you're working a lot, and you're home with your kid — I guess if you're a male celebrity, you can date the nanny — but otherwise, you have to meet somebody at work.

What other challenges do you see the squad facing this year?

My goal is for every character in the show to be uncomfortable for as long as possible this year. So Barba has these very politically charged cases in episodes four and five, and he sticks his neck out, and he's warned pretty flat-out. Barba's always been a pretty ambitious guy, and you get the sense that he likes being a DA, but he sees it as a possible stepping stone to a political career. After episodes four and five, people are going to be gunning for him, so that's an interesting place for him. Carisi, we'll find out, has signed up for the law boards, so he's going to have to figure out who he is and what he wants as the season goes on. Fin's got to figure out if he can handle all of these changes. He's going to go out on a limb a couple times. He's worried about protecting his partner, Rollins, and that's going to get him in trouble as well. And Benson is going to feel like she is managing the nuthouse. The transition that she's been making for a while from one of the gang to the boss and the costs of that transition will become clearer and clearer to her as the season goes on.

Looking at the season as a whole, would you say there's a theme?

Transitions. It's a challenging year for everyone, and no one comes out of this season where they were at the beginning. The departure of Amaro sets a lot of things in motion. Everybody had a sixth role on that squad, so when one person leaves, it creates stresses and gaps, and people have to fill in those gaps, and that causes more stresses. It's almost like a mobile that was frozen and now it's starting to move, so now everything's in motion, which is a good thing for a show in its 17th year.

You signed an overall deal with Sony in March, so do you know yet if this definitely will be your last season as showrunner on SVU?

Speaking of transitions, that's why it's about transitions. … Sony has loaned me back to Law & Order for the season, is essentially how that worked out, but I'm a loaner. It's a strange process, but barring a collapse of the entire Hollywood system, I imagine this is my last year at Law & Order. I'll be moving on to other things, so I feel like my job is to make its renewal undeniable for next year with or without me.

Hargitay has spoken highly of the show's creative direction in recent seasons, so what were your conversations with her about your exit like?

Obviously I spoke to her before I did anything, and we're in touch. ... We have a very, very good team here, and she knows she's protected here and has input into any decisions made. Change is anxiety-provoking for me, for her, for everybody. It can work out fine.

We're trying to enjoy this last year together as much as we can, and we have been. When you know it's your last year, you can really swing for the fences, so it's been a little bit liberating creatively, as we're taking more interesting chances and pushing things a little bit because you don’t want to walk away and then, a year later, ask, "Why didn’t I do this?" She's supportive of me and excited to see what happens next.

Law & Order: SVU returns with a two-hour season premiere on Wednesday, Sept. 23, at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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