‘SVU’ Boss Defends Ripped From the Headlines Stories

"Law & Order: SVU": Mariska Hargitay as Detective Olivia Benson, Dann Florek as Captain Donald Cragen, Danny Pino as Detective Nick Amaro -- (Photo by: David Giesbrecht/NBC)

When “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” premieres its 14th season on Wednesday, Sept. 26, we will discover that nothing is as black and white as might be hoped. With Captain Cragen (Dann Florek) under arrest for the murder of a hooker, it turns out that the seemingly innocuous secrets that the members of the SVU squad have been keeping are what will make it difficult to solve the case. No one is above suspicion.

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In what was a very dramatic finale last May, Cragen woke up and discovered a dead hooker [Pippa Black as Carissa] with a slashed throat in his bed. But he has no memory of how she got there, or whether or not he had committed the heinous deed.

When it returns to NBC on Wednesday, “SVU” will air back-to-back episodes, so the story, which began last May, will actually wind up being a three-part investigation into the vicious power struggle between New York City’s top two escort businesses. With the captain’s arrest, tensions run high as the detectives contend with District Attorney Paula Foster’s (guest star Paget Brewster) investigation of Cragen, as well as deal with the arrival of a tough new captain, Steven Harris (guest star Adam Baldwin).

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“There’s a lot of triangulation within the squad room,” says executive producer Warren Leight. “Nobody knows what to make of it. Will the captain come back? If he does come back, will he have any authority? Will things be the same? There’s a lot of stress when your patriarch is under attack… It’s pretty cataclysmic. I didn’t want to end the season necessarily with a big explosion, but I wanted something that was sort of an emotional explosion in the squad.”

Leight definitely succeeded in shaking up the SVU team. Now, he talks to XfinityTV.com about the theme for the rest of the season, why ripped from the headlines is still an important aspect to the long-running series, and what his plans are for marking the series’ 300th anniversary episode.

Is there a theme for this season? If it’s one word, it would be secrets. I think people keep them and people are in denial, keeping secrets from themselves, and from others. What affect does that have on our society? It’s really interesting.

Last year we ended up doing a lot of stories about men in power behaving badly. It was like low-hanging fruit last year. This year, obviously, there will be a lot of that but also the corrosive effect of people leading double lives, people in denial or people not acknowledging what they’ve gone through.

We keep trying to examine the reality of the toll that sex crimes take on individuals and on our society. I sometimes get insulted when people misperceive it as titillation. It’s much more: It’s let’s talk about this, what’s going on? How do we get leaders this ignorant about the basics of rape? How’s that possible in this century?

One of the things I had to understand very quickly was how personal this show is for a number of people in the audience, and how much it allows them to begin to talk about what happened to them or experiences they’ve had. It’s a tremendous responsibility that maybe was less of a responsibility when I was over at “Criminal Intent.”

We had murder victims then. Our victims at SVU are alive and often have to prove that they were victimized. For some reason, they’re not taken at their word and they’re accused of lying, so it’s a much more complicated arena. But certainly in the real world of sex crimes, cops and D.A.’s, it’s a really demanding job and it takes a toll. We’ll be seeing the toll it takes on our guys this season.

Is “ripped from the headlines” still an important thing for “SVU”? I think so. What we did last year was rip from about 12 different headlines and try and figure out what are these stories all about and how do we synthesize stories for our guys out of them? There are times where we more overtly lift ones but almost every story is informed by some sort of bad behavior that’s out there now.

So we will be doing an episode about predators misusing social apps. We will be doing an episode about a politician and a secret life he led that others didn’t know about. We’re trying to talk about real issues, and so ripping from the headlines gets us there faster.

I think what we rip one-to-one isn’t always as successful for us as when we come up with our own story inspired by a bunch of other stories. And then a couple of times last year, we wrote the story and then the headlines ripped from us. We had a story about a basketball coach, played by Dan Lauria, and that was because we had been paying close attention. There had been lots of coaches doing things like this, there had been lots of guys misusing their charitable foundations as sort of a breeding ground for their next victims, so we didn’t have inside information about Jerry Sandusky but the sad truth is, there’s nothing original about what he did. And there’s nothing original about the cover-up.

So a lot of times, we can be seen almost as ahead of the news because, unfortunately, these guys have pretty distinct patterns, and so, if we get six stories about a hockey coach here, a gymnastics instructor there, this guy, this guy and we start thinking about them, and the guy who runs Covenant House from years ago, who used a charity, we can put that story together and then two and half months later, have the Penn State scandal break.

It’s more because, unfortunately, real predators work in similar ways. So if we rip from a headline, it’s trying to maybe out people as opposed to out of laziness.

NBC posted pictures the other day of the 300th episode. Do you have special plans for that episode? For the 300th episode, we’re doing a couple of things that are interesting. I wanted to refer back to the show’s earliest days. The episode is called “Manhattan Vigil” and it’s the story of a wealthy family whose kid is snatched in the middle of the day. It reminds detective Benson and Munch [Richard Belzer] of a case from 13 years ago of a missing boy snatched in the same neighborhood when the neighborhood was far less gentrified and it was a case that got a lot fewer resources.

There’s a lot of déjà vu to the episode on purpose. Jean de Segonzac directed the pilot so we have him directing the 300th episode. Chris Orbach is in the 300th episode. He was in the first season. Jerry Orbach’s son.

We have a number of actors who had parts in the pilot in this episode — not playing the same characters — we just wanted to bring them back. We figured they did something right if the show is still going 300 episodes later. So we thought it was a way of saying thanks.

The episode, in a sense, compares these characters now to where they were when the show began. I wanted it to be different from 299 and 301.

“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” premieres its 14th season on Wednesday, Sept. 26, at 9/8c on NBC.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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