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The #PeakTV era may be filled with upwards of 400 scripted shows, but as more and more outlets eye limited series and shortened season orders (10 or 13 versus the standard 22-episode count), hitting 400 hours has become an increasingly rare feat.
Which makes it all the more impressive that Law & Order: SVU will hit that very milestone Wednesday with an episode directed by series star and executive producer Mariska Hargitay.
Despite this unique distinction, the 400th episode comes as questions continue to swirl about a different episode of the long-running Dick Wolf drama: the Donald Trump-inspired hour that was delayed twice in the fall, and still has no airdate.
When asked about the episode at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in January, Wolf estimated it would in the spring but nothing has been confirmed about when, or if, the episode will ever be broadcast.
“Sometimes the facts go against you in a way you can’t imagine,” showrunner Rick Eid tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And all of a sudden what you wrote two months ago feels different than what you might have written in the present because the facts have changed and I think there was a bit of that.”
Ahead of the 400th episode’s debut, Eid spoke with THR about the “emotional” hour, the “complicated” discussion that led to Benson’s recent split and, yes, the Donald Trump episode.
Going into writing this 400th episode, what did you want to achieve? Was there anything you wanted to write into this specifically?
We knew Mariska was going to direct it so I think we tried to write something that she could really sink her teeth into and get excited about and passionate about. We wanted to give Mariska something that we thought was complicated and highlighted her strengths as an actor, as a director and ultimately, something that was hopefully emblematic of the show itself, a worthy representation of number 400 that symbolizes all the show can do, has done and hopefully will do in the future.
How did you figure out what would make for the best episode for her to direct?
Mariska, first of all, is a fantastic director, just as a director even if she weren’t an actor, she really has talent as a director. But being an actor, we wanted to give her an actor piece that’s complicated and psychological and emotional. We wanted a strong female opponent for Mariska in the episode so it’s sort of Benson matching wits with a formidable female opponent. That was the way we looked at it – what would be a powerful episode and Mariska going toe-to-toe with another powerful character.
After this episode, you’re almost halfway through season 18. What are obstacles are coming up for Benson and the squad in the second half of the season?
I think that the obstacles are just dealing with really complicated cases as a lead investigator and the character of Benson being so invested in these cases and compassionate and empathetic with the victims. Each and every episode, the obstacle really is how do you find the bad guy and how do you help the victims heal? That’s what’s so great about the show and probably why it’s lasted for 400 episodes – it’s just sort of embedded into the fabric of each episode.
There’s some interesting character relationships going on: the Barba character has some interesting things happen to him. [With] the Carisi character, his issues continue to sort of evolve a little bit. He’s a lawyer, he passed the bar, there are hints he may want to move that way at some point. We continue to dig into the characters and their relationships.
Can you elaborate on what’s coming up for Barba?
We have an episode the deals with the suspect in the case is a hacker, a sophisticated tech genius entrepreneur who we also find out is a hacker. The person digs into Barba’s professional and personal life a little bit and causes some complications in this episode and maybe in his future.
Benson recently broke up with Tucker (Robert John Burke). What were those conversations like in the writer’s room and why did you decide this was the right move and the timing of it?
It was a complicated discussion about what to do with Tucker and Benson and I think both Tucker and Benson are complicated characters. It’s two people that really cared about each other and love each other but the complication of their respective backstories and Mariska’s focus on being a great detective, a great mother and still in the moment of her career and the Tucker character looking towards that next chapter and wanting to settle down and take a different approach in life – it just wasn’t going to work at this moment in time. We love the actor, we love the character, we love the relationship. You never say never. It just felt real that they might just be missing each other just enough and that’s the way to dramatize that.
What talks have you had about another love interest coming into her life this season?
We’re still talking about that. Nothing’s been officially decided but we try to treat all these characters like real people. They’re living their life and doing real things and even though we’re not with them all the time, we imagine they do have lives outside the squad room. So if something makes sense, we’ll explore it.
What do you think that that character might look like in comparison to some of the other love interests she’s had in the past? Is there something particular you’d like to see?
Ultimately, we’d all like to see a relationship that has legs, that works and makes Benson happy. So what that is both in fiction and in real life, it’s hard to sometimes describe. So you kind of have to see how it all works on the page and then onscreen and then in terms of story. But we like the idea of her in a relationship. We definitely think you can be a world class detective and a world class mother and be in a world class relationship, so we’re all onboard for trying to make that happen.
There’s also been some talk about a potential spinoff. What, if anything, can you say about that?
I can’t really get into any of that. There’s always talks. There’s been nothing official.
Shifting gears, there is one episode that hasn’t aired and doesn’t have an airdate.
Which one’s that? (Laughs.)
Dick Wolf said at TCA he thought the Donald Trump-inspired episode might air in the spring. When do you think the episode will air?
I have heard no news on that issue. Literally, no one talks to me about it. I’ve heard nothing about it. That’s definitely a network decision. It’s definitely not a Rick Eid decision, that I can promise you, so I have no idea.
SVU looks to the headlines for inspiration all the time so why the decision to delay this episode? What did you understand the network’s reasoning behind that decision to be?
I can’t speak for them. I have no idea. They made the decision that they thought was best and they’re smart people so I don’t know.
The assumption, at least with the media, was that the election was going to go a different way. Looking back now, if you had known then how the election was going to turn out, would you have still done this episode? Is there anything else you have done differently looking back?
I can’t look back and pretend that I knew what was going to happen. But when we thought of the episode, we were trying to write what made sense. I definitely don’t have regrets.
When you’re living in the world of being inspired by real-life headlines, sometimes the facts go against you in a way you can’t imagine and all of a sudden what you wrote two months ago feels different than what you might have wrote in the present because the facts have changed and I think there was a bit of that. You just try to write good episodes that are entertaining, that are compelling and that have some sort of zeitgeist features to them and sometimes the world changes on you and all of a sudden, for whatever reason, it no longer makes sense to air it or you’re behind the times of you’re ahead of the times. That’s just a function of playing the game that we play as writers in general – the world changes, the world changes fast and sometimes things happen that you don’t account for and all of a sudden it makes something different than it was meant to be, or looked at different than it was meant to be.
The news broke a couple days ago about an episode loosely inspired by Roger Ailes. Why were you drawn to that headline in particular? What other headlines are you looking to for other upcoming episodes?
First of all, Law & Order is fiction. We all know that. We’re working on a lot of stories right now and they’re all in different stages. We are inspired by headlines, we’re definitely aware of what’s going on in society and we draw on that to help inspire episodes but I don’t want to get into specific headlines or specific people or specific characters. The other reason this show has been on the air for 400 episodes is we try to make these shows topical and have some resonance into what’s going on in society. In the back half of the season, they’ll be some issues discussed and some episodes written that will hopefully feel topical.
With what’s going on in the news right and specifically the Women’s March about reproductive rights, it feels like something that could be discussed on the show. How much are you and the other writers paying attention specifically to those conversations happening now? How do you see that possibly bleeding into the show?
Yeah, we are definitely paying attention to what’s going on as people and as writers. I think that we have back-to-back episodes coming up as our finale, the last two episodes will be back-to-back, so I think we’re going to try to really find an interesting topic to explore in that episode. It’s still early but some of the things we’re talking about are definitely issues that people are discussing, marching about, venting about and have a lot of people up in arms on both sides of the dial. We try to explore these things from both sides and try to have a back-and-forth on these issues and not take a hard stand on things necessarily. I think that our last two episodes will definitely feel topical.
Can you elaborate at all on what those issues might be?
It was one of these moments where it was a brilliant idea yesterday at 9 at night. Once we see if there’s enough there to make it a great episode or two great episodes, it may fizzle out so I don’t want to. … Again, our goal is to find these exciting issues going on, these polarizing issues going on, these emotional issues going on in our society and find a way to tell a Law & Order story that captures that in some form or fashion.
At this point in time, how confident are you feeling about a season 19?
I’d like to think we have a season 19, a season 20 and a season 21, but that’s [the network’s] decision. There’s a lot that goes into those decisions. But I think we’re cautiously optimistic there will be more episodes of Law & Order: SVU.
Law & Order: SVU airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.
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