My Favorite Scene: Past and Current Producers Look Back on 'Law & Order: SVU'
By Stacy Lambe
No one loves a great scene more than the person who first dreamed it up -- the writer. We're asking iconic shows' creators and writers to tell ET all about getting to see their most cherished moment on their series make it from script to screen.
On Wednesday, Feb. 8, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit will reach a major TV milestone when it airs its 400th episode, a feat only previously achieved by eight scripted series over the past four decades. While a lot of credit for the show’s success and stamina is given to the cast led by Mariska Hargitay, who has won an Emmy for playing Det. Olivia Benson, it’s hard to ignore the writing, which has earned several Edgar Allen Poe Award nominations over the course of its run.
At its core, creator Dick Wolf tells ET the show has always been about writing. “This has never changed,” he says, adding that if it “stays good,” SVU has the ability to beat Law & Order and Gunsmoke’s record of 20 seasons, the most for a live-action prime-time scripted series.
With that in mind, former showrunner Neal Baer, who led the series from season two through season 12 and served as executive producer for ER and Under the Dome, and current executive producers Julie Martin and Jonathan Starch opened up to ET about their favorite moments from the past 400 episodes.
These are their stories…
Julie Martin, Executive Producer
“Heartfelt Passages,” Episode 22, Season 17
Well, this is really like being asked who is your favorite child! All the episodes I’ve worked on over the past five seasons have their own individual personalities, quirks, emotions and problems and are all lovable in their own way. But if I had to pick one, I’d choose the season 17 finale “Heartfelt Passages.” I co-wrote this episode with [seasons 13-17 showrunner] Warren Leight. We were faced with a double challenge: how to end the season (Leight’s last) on a dramatic, powerful note, and also how to give a hero’s farewell to Det. Mike Dodds, as actor Andy Karl was leaving the show to do a musical in London. We wanted the episode to be wrenching emotionally and also have some closure and uplift. We decided early on that we would have Dodds get killed on his last day on the job. That was a real departure for Law & Order: SVU, which, up until then, had never killed off a regular character.
We had been doing a storyline about an abusive prison guard, played brilliantly by Brad Garrett. These types of perpetrators are often abusive to their own families. A domestic violence situation can be one of the most deadly for police officers. The
two story lines came together, and we wrote the first two acts of the episode, basically a domestic violence stand-off that ended with Andy Karl’s character getting shot. We then (somewhat shamelessly) milked the emotion for another two acts, keeping Mike Dodds alive and possibly recovering, only to have him die due to complications from the shooting. Benson, wracked with guilt and grief, tries to find some closure at the end of the episode, in her shrink’s office, then with Tucker and her son, Noah. The final image is perfect, the three of them against the New York skyline, looking out to…the future? That image summed up the episode -- beauty, sadness and ultimately hope. The uncertainty and fragility of life and how we all struggle in our own ways to make sense of loss and change.
The episode was directed by one of our most talented directors, Alex Chapple. We tried to schedule the filming sequentially so it played out in real time. The actors were all so emotional about Andy leaving the show and the changes we would go through in the next season that reality and TV seemed to blur. I remember one scene in particular that had almost no dialog, just Benson walking down an empty corridor to tell her detectives that Mike had died. But she’d never say it, they would just read it on her face. As a writer, your natural instinct is to have people speak. But Mariska Hargitay was so incredible, and so movingly told the story with just her expression. I couldn’t believe I ever doubted that would work! By the end of the shoot, we were all pretty worn out. There was a lot of crying, on-screen and off. But that’s a successful episode for us. Four acts and a cry.
Jonathan Starch, Executive Producer
“Community Policing,” Episode 4, Season 17
The best kind of “ripped from the headlines” episodes in the history of Law & Order draw not just on one sensational story but on deeper patterns in our culture through the lens of the procedural TV show mold Dick Wolf has kept relevant for
In the fall of 2015, the stories of innocent people dying in the hands of the police became overwhelming, capped off by the names from that summer alone: Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland. The SVU writers went to work and created an episode, ironically (or not) titled “Community Policing,” that channeled much of the contradictory feelings we all had at that moment, expressing the fear of making mistakes “on the job” and the challenge of drawing the line between
profiling and common-sense policing.
In the opening sequence of the episode the SVU team is activated in pursuit of a push-in “pattern" rapist who attacked a child and is described as a black man. Series regulars Mariska Hargitay, Ice-T, Kelli Giddish, Raúl Esparza and Peter Scanavino are joined in the episode by a host of guest stars reprising their roles as cops from earlier episodes of SVU -- Isiah Whitlock, Robert John Burke, Donal Logue and Michael Potts are just a few -- allowing the episode to feel like it was years in the planning, and putting the viewer fully in the shoes of our family of cops setting out to do their jobs right. The production team had to bend over backward to work around the complicated schedules of the huge guest cast, including two leads in the white-hot hit of the Broadway season: Daveed Diggs and Leslie Odom Jr. of Hamilton.
After a coincidental cross-racial ID in the case, an innocent black man is pursued into a housing project at night and (in the key scene of the episode) is shot. Director Jean De Segonzac’s background in documentaries came in handy as we planned the scene to feel spontaneous and dangerous, without a clear idea of what was going on at first. Filming a scene like this in an actual New York City housing project was a challenge, but our locations department immediately went to work
with the residents and the real NYPD and mayor’s office to make sure the filming was safe: The gunfire happened off-screen (sounds added later) and we hired a seasoned stunt player to play the part of the young man killed by mistake (he was able to vault over fences as the police were in pursuit).
The ultimate power of the episode comes like a punch to the stomach in the final scenes: After the mistaken shooting of the young black man explodes our cops’ world and the lives of his parents and community, the unrelated shooting of a white police officer after a traffic stop shows that no one today is more than a heartbeat away from gun violence.
Neal Baer, Showrunner and Executive Producer
“911,” Episode 3, Season 7
I chose episode “911,” where Olivia Benson is going on a date but stops because a little girl calls for help but she's locked in a room and she doesn't know where she is. Then Olivia, for three acts, literally stays on the phone with this girl, keeping her talking as the phone is losing its charge. Ultimately, it does lose its charge.
My favorite scene is Olivia racing against the clock to find where this girl is before the phone loses its power. And the phone goes out before she has located the exact place. The distress and despair on Benson's face is just profound.
Ted Kotcheff directed it and he’s a renowned feature film director, so he did things that scared Mariska. I remember because Mariska called me to the set and we talked because Ted was doing close-ups of her lips, talking on the phone, close-ups of her eyes and close-ups in ways that we don't often see on television. I said to Ted, “Go for it.” We looked at the Alfred
Hitchcock film Marnie, where there are close-ups of Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery's mouths in a scene and jump cuts. I said, “Always steal from the best.” So we did these jump cuts of Mariska's mouth and eyes and we get some real tension. We knew we had the ability to do a very special episode with Mariska and it paid off.
It's my favorite episode of Mariska's because it shows all the sides of Benson's character: the warmth, the empathy, the anger and the despair that can come from working these kinds of cases and the determination not to give up. She does find the little girl in the end. She's actually been buried and she has one line in the show and she says, 'Olivia.' And your heart
breaks and you're so relieved. It was such a wonderful journey for Mariska.
The one little sidebar that I think is kind of fun is the way I figured out how to do it. It’s something that I had done with Dr. Doug Ross [George Clooney], where he saves a kid on ER and I put him in a tuxedo. We got a lot of attention because the juxtaposition of being in a tuxedo and saving a kid in a tunnel was really interesting and fun. So I used that idea for Mariska and put her in the black cocktail dress -- which she got to pick out -- because she was going on a really important date. She never makes it to the date but she looks beautiful in this cocktail dress. So you're looking at her in a very different way, from
the way she was physically dressed on the show. I just loved doing that as a way to highlight her femininity but also her charging toughness. So, that was a really fun episode for me to do. And that scene in particular, where she throws the phone in despair when the little girl is disconnected from her, for me has always been memorable.
That's the episode that won Mariska the Emmy and Golden Globe -- so well deserved.
Neal Baer, Showrunner and Executive Producer
“Swing,” Episode 3, Season 10
My favorite scene with Christopher Meloni is with Ellen Burstyn on the beach where -- it's interesting because these moments are obviously personal moments -- Stabler [Meloni] is talking to his mother, who is in a manic phase with her bipolar disorder. He had gone to see his mother because his daughter's in trouble and he doesn't know where to turn. His
daughter has had some of the same psychiatric issues. So he goes to his mother, who is having a manic episode and is building sandcastles on the beach.
It's a really moving scene that really gets into Stabler's fears about who he is, who his parents [are], where he's from, how he's tried to overcome and maybe ignore or be in denial about his roots. We see a side of him that he's tried to keep repressed, which I love. The combination of the two of them is really moving and gives us a real humane side of Stabler, you know, apart from the angry detective that will stop at nothing to bring in the perp. This is a man who has his own wounds and they've been opened up for us to see when we brought in his mother.
Ellen Burstyn won an Emmy for that episode as well. Of course, we were so delighted and fortunate to have one of those world-class actors to play his mother. I was like, “Wow. OK, this will be good.” The two of them together is really painful, just like family life at times.
I write about this a lot because I think about it in my own life. I think we write about what interests us, and I am interested in
parent-child relationship struggles all these years later with my own. So I find ways to write about it through these stories. And they resonate. Everyone still has parent-child relationships they're still trying to resolve. Then, when you're able to get someone like Sally Field for ER or Ellen Burstyn, you're really able to go deep. You can really get at the core of human behavior.
Neal Baer, Showrunner and Executive Producer
“Recall,” Episode 3, Season 8
The third scene would be Leslie Caron as Lorraine Delmas on the stand, when she remembers what happened to her when she was sexually assaulted years before and has to confront this younger man whom she has befriended. It's so compelling and sad, but it's also Lorraine’s first step into freedom, you know, to rid herself of the demons she's held inside her.
By doing it, she recalls that she saved the clothes [from the assault] and that's what convicts this guy.
Her raw pain, that's just so palpable. She was also heroic. I loved seeing Leslie, who's such a brilliant actor, be able to access both the raw feelings and the heroism that it took to confront this guy years later.
Leslie was a huge get for us. I was determined to have Leslie on the show and that was a wonderful opportunity, but it took a lot of work. She was in Sardinia and she had no visa, so we had to go literally to Teddy Kennedy's office to expedite the visa to bring Leslie from Europe. When she won the Emmy, she did this gracious acceptance speech where she recalled being nominated for a most promising newcomer award in the '50s, and then she paused and said, “I think I finally fulfilled my potential.” She was nominated for two Oscars and never won, so it was really lovely for her to win the Emmy.