New 'Law & Order: SVU' Showrunner on Taking the Reins, Benson's Guilt and Barba's "Agenda"

LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT - Episode 1801-Scanavino -Hargitay- Giddish-H 2016
Giovanni Ruffino/NBC

Law & Order said goodbye to important members of the team both on- and offscreen last season. Showrunner Warren Leight left the drama after five seasons at the helm, and for his farewell episode, he killed off beloved recurring character Sgt. Mike Dodds (Andy Karl), who died in the line of duty. Dodds' absence still looms large over the rest of the SVU squad when season 18 kicks off Sept. 21.

"Anytime there's a loss, there's a tendency to value what you have," incoming showrunner Rick Eid tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I think there's an increased feeling of brotherhood and, 'Let's do the job, but let's protect each other.' It's about watching each other's back."

Eid, a former lawyer and former co-executive producer on the mother-ship series, also spoke with THR about his goals for season 18, Vice President Joe Biden's appearance and what headlines the show may be pulling from this season.

Coming into the show, what did you think was working last season? Conversely, what were you looking to maybe tweak or experiment with?

I thought it was a great season. They did such a good job with digging into the characters and exploring their issues and lives in depth so I think that's great. I loved the character work that was done last year and of course the way they find a way to create these emotional connections between the characters and the cases. And there was innovative storytelling, complex stories, topical stories, so I think the goal for season 18 was to just keep doing high-quality work and doing the things that the fans loved, that the show I think has done so well for so many years.

The mandate definitely wasn't to change the show and my goal is definitely not to change the show, just to continue trying to do the best week in and week out, tell really interesting, topical, provocative, complicated stories and find ways to invest our characters and continue to peel back the layers on the series regulars.

Since you liked most of what the show did last season, what do you think was your biggest challenge coming into the show?

First of all, it's trying to make sure you maintain the high quality of the show. That's the real challenge. The show's been on for 17 years and has done extremely well and has this really rabid fan base. You just make sure you can deliver what people have come to expect, just making good shows. As somebody running the show, the challenge is really getting to know the characters, the actual fictitious characters and then at the same time getting to know the actors and just understanding all the different people who have been involved for so long and have made the show so great. It's really getting to know them personally, professionally and really begin that collaborative process.

Every writer has a distinct style so how do you think your voice will bleed into the writer's room and possibly make it different than what it was before?

I think its more of an organic thing. You just kind of are who you are and you see the show through your own prism.… I used to be a lawyer and I wrote for the original Law & Order, so I enjoy writing some of the trial stuff and the legal stuff, and I think there's lots of interesting, complicated legal issues that are interesting to explore, especially in the form of SVU. So I think, again, I don't even know, I haven't even looked at how much law they did the last few years versus what we're doing, but there might be a little more law just because of my background so that might be one place we're trying to explore.

In episode three of this year we're doing a pretty interesting legal episode and it involves the concept of rape by impersonation. Technically, in New York, there is no such thing as rape by impersonation so, for example, you could pretend to be somebody else, have sex with a woman who consented to having sex, she thinks you're Jay Z and finds out you're not Jay Z — is that rape? Yes, or no? We're telling the story as a way to explore the world of college admissions and the pressure and the things people do to get their kids into prestigious colleges. The idea of the episode is there is some guy pretending to be the director of admissions at a prestigious university and he's exploiting these anxious, helicopter moms and having sex with them. Then when we find out he's a fraud the question is, is that rape? It's an interesting legal issue. It's an interesting political issue. There are some states that are beginning to talk about legislation in this area so we kind of explore in one episode the idea that this legal issue: Is rape by impersonation really rape? I mean people always lie to meet women, to have sex – is that really a crime? Or is that just the way life is?

What are other big news items or other cases that you knew you wanted to tackle on the show this coming season?

There are so many real life things to pull from that I definitely had a few ideas. Our season opener involves a mass shooting situation; originally it was inspired, unfortunately, by what happened in San Bernardino and by the time we started filming it and we were in preproduction, there were so many more horrible mass shootings that we had to adjust the scripts and reference some of these things. It's a very topical issue, the idea of, is the shooter tied to an extremist group? Is it just a crazy person? Is the wife of the shooter involved? Is she an unwilling and forced participant?

We also did an episode inspired by the documentary series Making a Murderer. The episode we're doing is about a guy who was wrongfully imprisoned for a rape he did not commit. He's exonerated by DNA, but Joe Biden is in that episode playing himself and talking about the rape kit backlog. That episode explores the idea of what happens when an innocent man is sent to prison for 18 years and gets out? We continue to find inspiration in the headlines, in the zeitgeist and try to put our own Law & Order, Dick Wolf spin on it all and make it complicated and tell both sides of the story and hopefully create some interesting conversation for the people who watch.

One particular news story that's made a lot of headlines in the past few weeks is this Nate Parker situation. Do you think that's something you would use as inspiration for an episode? What other potential episodes do you see down the pipeline?

Are you asking for story credit just so I know? I'm going to get legal on the phone. (Laughs.) Yeah, that's definitely an interesting area.… And it is possible we may try to explore a story involving some sort of brash demagogue with political ambitions.

On the show, the characters are coming out of a very difficult loss. How much time has passed since the events of the finale? How is the squad dealing with that loss?

In the teaser of the first episode, Benson's with her son and she goes to throw away a cup of coffee and she sees a newspaper in the waste basket talking about the memorial service for Mike Dodds, so we're reminded of what happened. I'd say we're maybe a month out from the actual shooting in the finale, and it’s still very fresh on her mind, and clearly on Chief Dodds' mind as well. That is referenced and we see what's going on there between the two of them in the first episode. They've got some interesting things going on.

What do you see as her journey this season as she is dealing with that loss? What are some obstacles she faces this season?

First and foremost, I think she feels guilty about his death and blames herself. She has a high standard as a person and as a detective so I feel like she's taking this very personally so that, I think, will be a challenge for her to forgive herself. I think you'll see her becoming maybe a little more protective of her team and fearing danger and becoming a little more protective of those around her. That's the direct aftermath of the shooting. Her other challenge is she's trying to make a relationship work with someone while working in a pretty difficult place with a lot of responsibility, a lot of accountability. She's working long hours, seeing some pretty dark things and at the same time, dealing with the guilt over Mike Dodds and at the same trying to have an adult relationship with somebody so she's got a lot of challenges.

So Tucker will definitely be back?

Tucker's back, and we see him in the premiere. It's two complicated people in a complicated relationship and we'll see how that plays out.

With the loss of Mike Dodds, Benson no longer has a No. 2. What can you say about the search to fill that void?

At the moment we're rolling with a man down and the idea is that Benson is sort of a player-coach, if you will. She's the boss, but she's a boss that doesn't want to be behind the desk 24/7. So she's the boss calling the orders and dealing with Chief Dodds and the other political issues that come, but at the same time, she's going to be on the street investigating cases, pairing off with one of the detectives. So it's a man down, but they're working hard and pulling it off.

There was a lot of speculation last season about a potential Rollins-Carisi romance. Where will the new season find the two of them? What are your thoughts on that pairing?

We find them as two hard-working detectives that like and respect each other and have fun with each other. [They] have a really great dynamic between the two of them that's not necessarily romantic at the moment, but I think you never know what may happen down the line. They clearly enjoy each other and they like to poke fun at each other and they both totally get each other, but I wouldn’t say it's romantic at the moment. You never know when a spark may occur, but I think right now, it's more professional. They're friends and it's about covering for each other and respecting each other and having each other's back more than it is romance.

Carisi passed the bar at the end of last season so how will he decide which way to go this season? What does that decision look like?

He's working as a cop, but he's exploring the possibility of maybe moving over to be a prosecutor and, ultimately, it will depend on what he is more passionate about. In episode three, for example, we see him interviewing with the Brooklyn District Attorney and he's starting to sort of do the math on the differences between being a policeman and being a prosecutor: the different people, the different cultures. So I think that will maybe be more of a longer arc. It's not going to be resolved right away, but it's clear he's wondering what's out there for him. Yet, at the same time, he likes being a cop, he likes what he does. But you go to law school, you take the bar, you feel like you owe it to yourself to see, oh, is the grass really greener?

What can you say is coming up for Barba this season?

We'll see him become a little more political. For example, in episode three, we'll see him taking on a case he knows that does not necessarily have legal support and he does it at Benson's behest because he knows it's the right thing to do and he also thinks it might, politically, be the right thing to do. We'll see the judge in this case call him out on that. There's an interesting dynamic between the judge and Barba because the judge is accusing Barba of using this case in his courtroom to advance his own political agenda. Maybe he's angling for the next move out there and what the future holds for him.… I think you'll see in a lot of the scripts we've done, the idea that people we may or may not see above them influencing what's happening in the case, managing the political agendas and all those things.

Law & Order: SVU returns Wednesday, Sept. 21, at 9 p.m. on NBC.