How 'Law & Order: SVU' Is Getting a "Fresh" Take in Season 19

Incoming showrunner Michael Chernuchin talks to THR about putting Benson "through the wringer" in season 19 and adding Philip Winchester to the core cast.
Courtesy of NBC (Still); Getty Images (Chernuchin)

Season 19 of Law & Order: SVU marks Michael Chernuchin's first as showrunner. However, the veteran writer-producer insists "this is second nature for me."

That might sound hyperbolic but Chernuchin's résumé speaks for itself. The law school grad has a long history with the Dick Wolf franchise, dating back to 1991 when he wrote three episodes for the flagship series in its first season. He came onboard as a story editor in season two, and eventually worked his way up to executive producer and showrunner in season six before he departed, only to return for seasons 13 and 14. He also logged two seasons on the Criminal Intent spinoff, first as a consulting producer in 2002 and then as a co-executive producer in 2009. That adds up to 59 writing credits on the various iterations (60, including the forthcoming season-19 premiere of SVU).

"It's very comforting because you know what he can do, and he did it so successfully so many years for us," Wolf Films president and SVU executive producer Peter Jankowski tells The Hollywood Reporter.

However, Chernuchin's arrival still marks a major change at SVU, for which he is the second new showrunner in as many seasons. After the end of Warren Leight's five-year tenure, Rick Eid, another Law & Order vet, took over in season 18. However, SVU made waves that same season for an episode inspired by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump that was supposed to air just two weeks before the election. The installment was delayed twice, and has yet to air. Ahead of SVU's season-18 finale, it was announced that Eid would be moving to Wolf's other cop drama, Chicago P.D.

"There was a need on P.D. to kind of shake things up a bit and it was a natural move for us to bring Rick Eid over to P.D. and put Michael on SVU," Jankowski says. "It's playing into what the writers do best."

(It also helps that Eid is based in Los Angeles as is the Chicago P.D. writers room. The writers room for SVU is based in New York, where the show also shoots.)

Chernuchin comes to SVU one year after returning to the Wolf Films fold as the showrunner of the short-lived Chicago Justice. Wolf asked Chernuchin to take over SVU as soon as NBC opted not to renew the legal spinoff for a second season.

"I love these kinds of stories. I really love the procedural stories that are serious, that are grown-up television, the Dick Wolf brand," he says. "He knows I have Law & Order in my blood."

However, Chernuchin still had some brushing up to do on SVU's history. "I didn’t watch a lot of it until I got the job and then I watched a couple of seasons," he says. "I didn’t want to watch all of them because I didn’t want to fall into traps. I wanted to try to be a fresh, new show, and I think that's what we're doing."

Another important step Chernuchin took was moving from Los Angeles to New York. "There's nothing like it for the cast to be able to walk into my office and talk to me and there's nothing like me being able to walk to the set and watch rehearsal. It's the way a show should be run," Chernuchin said.

Jankowski agrees: "It's essential. You live and breathe the city, you see it every day."

It's a stark difference from when Chernuchin used to fly back and forth between the Los Angeles writers room and the New York set of the mothership every few weeks. "I'm too old to do that now," he says with a chuckle.

However, the most important step in Chernuchin landing the top job might have been his long sit-down with series star and exec producer Mariska Hargitay. "I told her that I wanted every episode to be about something as opposed to just being a whodunit. I want it to be a why-done-it as well," he recalls of their meeting. "I told her that I was going to take her character, which was already established as a broken woman, and I was going to drag her through the woods throughout the whole season and she was going to come out stronger on the other end."

How did the Emmy winner react? "I told her some of the things that I was going to throw at her and she loved it," he says. "We just hit it off."

Chernuchin won't waste any time following up on that promise. Benson's former colleague and boyfriend Cassidy (Dean Winters) will return for multiple episodes beginning with the season premiere. "He shakes things up," teases Chernuchin teases, who says "there's a possibility" for a rekindled romance between the two.

In the third episode, Benson is thrown for a loop again with the arrival of Brooke Shields, who is set for a mysterious recurring role. Again, Chernuchin is tight-lipped. "I don't want to give it away because it is something you would never expect from Brooke Shields but she runs Benson through the wringer, both professionally and personally," he says.

As she has in past seasons, Benson will continue to be tested as a mother all season long. "Noah's getting older now so he deserves having a mother home a little longer. If Benson spends a little too much with Noah, she's giving up something at work. And if she spends too much at work, then she's missing something with Noah," he says. "That's a big thing this season — how she's being torn between two worlds."

That struggle plays into the larger theme of family, "and how hard it is to have a family," Chernuchin explains. "And that applies to our victims, our perpetrators, our main characters and the squad as a whole. I look at the squad as a family as well. A family should be the most natural thing in the world but it's damn hard and that's really the theme of the show this season."

As for the other characters, "Rollins will grow as a mom and become closer with Benson because here they are two working single moms," Chernuchin previews. Meanwhile, Carisi (Peter Scanavino) will come to realize "he likes the law a lot, not so much the lawyers," and Fin (Ice-T) will "get more responsibility although his character doesn't really want it," Chernuchin says. "He's happy to just go out and catch bad guys because there's black and white and no gray in his world."

Barba (Raul Esparza), like Benson, will also have a tough time this season. The cause of Barba's headaches? Peter Stone, i.e., Philip Winchester's Chicago Justice character, who will join SVU full-time midway through season 19 as a new prosecutor. "He and Barba are going to go at it big time and he's going to basically rock everybody's world from the moment he gets there," Chernuchin states. "He comes in and does something that nobody really appreciates."

Another complicating factor in Peter's move from the Cook County State's Attorney's office is that he's not the first Stone to work in the New York District Attorney's office. "He comes in with a big chip on his shoulder because his dad, Ben Stone, was one of the great prosecutors in New York," he says, in reference to Michael Moriarty's Law & Order character, who served as the series' main prosecutor for seasons one through four.

Yes, it's no coincidence that of all the characters Chernuchin opted to bring over from Justice to SVU, it's the one with ties to the show who helped launch his career.

"We've connected all the Dick Wolf shows," he says proudly. "The original New York franchise, the Chicago franchise, it's like the small Dickensian universe in London where different characters show up in different novels. That was one of the intriguing things to me by bringing Philip over, is to connect all the franchises."

Law & Order: SVU returns Wednesday, Sept. 27, at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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