'Law & Order: SVU' Prepares for Transition Onscreen and Off

Michael Parmelee/NBC; Jim Spellman/WireImage/Getty Images

As shows grow older, it usually becomes more and more difficult for writers to find new ways to top themselves and to make a season finale different than the one before. But that was far from true for the upcoming two-part season 17 finale of NBC's Law & Order: SVU.

"It was one of the easiest two scripts in a row that we've ever written," executive producer Julie Martin tells The Hollywood Reporter. "There was so much emotional material available to us because of what we're going through."

That's because, while the SVU squad is preparing for change in the final two episodes of the season, the long-running drama is bracing for a big departure behind the scenes as well. Showrunner Warren Leight is stepping down after five years at the helm for an overall deal at Sony Pictures Television.

"The fact that Warren and I are going through a transition professionally, not being writing partners and not working on the show next season probably informed [us]," Martin says. "What Warren and I were feeling is, how do you keep the job relevant and interesting and keep doing the consistent level of good work that you've done, but also how do you grow and how do you change and what's the next steps? Those questions of transition have been built into the two-part finale."

Adds Martin: "What we tried to build in was that every one of our characters was facing a crossroads in their life."

That holds particularly true for Carisi (Peter Scanvino), who learns whether or not he passed the bar exam, and Fin (Ice T), who gets some big personal news. "Benson [Mariska Hargitay] has a son now and now Rollins [Kelli Giddish] has a child — I think he's seeing his fellow detectives moving along in their personal life and that may bring him to question what's next for him," Martin says. "What is he doing to make his life fulfilling to him beyond just being a cop?"

Just as the finale continues the theme of family that has been explored all season, the two-parter, once again, shows the squad "going up against institutions, particularly New York institutions," Martin says. This time, it's a New York corrections officer (Brad Garrett) who is accused of sexual assaulting female inmates. ADA Barba (Raul Esparza) faces the brunt of the repercussions. "He's not beloved by the powers that be at NYPD and government for going after people he shouldn’t go after, so there's been an increase in the pressure on him and that will come to a head in the season finale," Martin says.

Because the finale marks the end of Leight's tenure, it will lean more towards conclusion, and away from cliffhangers. "In the past years Warren and I have had the luxury of being able to know that we were going to be writing the first two episodes coming back so we could build in the solution to that cliffhanger. Since that's not the case this year, we wanted to finish out our part of the storytelling," she says. "There were will definitely be a few threads left unanswered, things for the fans to obsess about over the summer for sure, but not as big of a cliffhanger as we've done in the past."

In addition to serving as Leight's farewell, the two-part finale also serves as a coda to his partnership with Martin, with whom he co-wrote the finale. Since the two joined SVU in 2011, they have co-written stories and scripts for 53 episodes of the series, including "Surrender Benson," in which Benson was memorably taken hostage, and this year's "Manhattan Transfer."

Martin says she always intended to stay on the series even after Leight's deal with Sony TV was first announced in March 2015. Helping matters was star and producer Hargitay's decision to stay on for season 18, as well.  

"Once I found out that Mariska was very invested in coming back, I was really excited about the possibility of things that we could do. She and I work together very well and have a lot of the same sensibilities," Martin says. "That was one of the guiding forces for me to say, 'Well, this could be exciting. This could be a new partnership going forward.'"

Behind the scenes, Martin also will be building a new partnership with incoming showrunner Rick Eid. Like Martin, who previously worked on Law & Order: Criminal Intent as well Law & Order and Law & Order: LA, Eid is a veteran of the 26-year old franchise.

"He's a fantastic writer and he will bring a new energy to the show," Martin says. "It's always great to have people come in who haven’t been doing it for years, and they have a fresh perspective and they have a different take on things and a different energy and just infuse what we have with some new blood."

Because Eid is based in Los Angeles, far from the show's New York base, Martin will also play a bigger role going forward. The significance of having a female executive producer play an increasingly large role on a show that deals with topics such as rape and sexual assault on a nearly weekly basis is not lost on her.

"The unfortunate reality, as we all know, is that the majority of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence are women," Martin says. "There are strong women survivor characters in almost every episode, so I think having a woman's sensibility and a woman's voice is very, very helpful to telling those stories."

It helps that, like Leight, Martin is active on social media and subsequently well-known among the #SVUDieHards that have kept the show going for 17 seasons and counting.

"I think Rick is newer to Twitter than we are, so we'll have to bring him along, but I certainly do see myself as taking that baton from Warren of leading the Twitter-verse charge," she says. "I've been doing it for a long time and I really enjoy it. Our Twitter fans are fantastic."

Martin anticipates this upcoming showrunner transition will be more smooth than the last one, when Leight came in just as series star Christopher Meloni suddenly and unexpectedly exited the show after 12 seasons.

"That was really a major shift between losing Chris Meloni and then refocusing the kind of stories that Warren and I wanted to tell, which were maybe a little bit more character-based than they had been in the past," she says. "The stories that Warren and I wanted to tell are the stories I want to tell as well, so it will be a continuation of what the show has done so well."