The NBC drama returns with all-new episodes on Thursday, Sept. 26.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit made history when it was renewed for season 21, becoming the longest-running live-action series in TV history. But the NBC procedural created by Dick Wolf isn’t planning to slow down anytime soon. “Turning 21 is a major milestone in life and it will be for SVU as well,” showrunner Warren Leight tells ET.
“It’s an honor to have a place like this in TV history,” he continues. “SVU is more than just a TV show to our fans, so we’re looking for more ways to move the audience and light a path towards healing and survivorship.”
The writers' room is “bigger and better than ever, and we’re crafting stories that can only be told at this point in SVU’s evolution,” reveals Leight, who previously helmed seasons 13 through 17 and makes a welcome return to the series. “And with Mariska Hargitay as our guide, we’ll continue to share the passionate strength and exemplary guidance of Olivia Benson with the world.”
When the series returns with new episodes on Thursday, fans can expect some big changes for the squad, which includes longtime favorites, Sgt. “Fin” Tutuola (Ice-T), Det. Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish) and Dominick Carisi Jr. (Peter Scanavino), in addition to Lt. Olivia Benson.
Among them is a promotion for Benson as well as changes to the squad and to the District Attorney’s office. However, not all the changes will be easy for the squad or Benson. “The bureaucratic politics involved won’t work out in her favor,” Leight says, adding that her personal life will also see “Benson noticing her son, Noah’s, expanding freedom -- he’s not a baby anymore.”
The showrunner also teases that audiences “may also see some new faces come through the precinct.”
Admitting that a lot has changed since 2016, when he initially left SVU, Leight returns in a post-#MeToo era, which has added resonance to the series that has long tackled issues of sexual harassment, assault and coercion by men in power.
While the series isn’t always “ripped from the headlines,” SVU has often taken inspiration from the news and incidents involving high-profile men, like Bill Cosby, Chris Brown, Donald Trump (in an episode that never aired), John Edwards, Jeffrey Epstein, Ray Rice and Ted Kennedy. The premiere is no different, with guest star Ian McShane playing “a rich, high-powered man who’s a serial predator.” In the episode, he takes young actresses up to his hotel room for a private audition before attacking them. Audiences will undoubtedly see the parallels to Harvey Weinstein, who has been the subject of ongoing allegations of sexual misconduct that first emerged in the Pulitzer Prize-winning exposés by the New York Times and the New Yorker.
(While the former movie mogul maintains his innocence, pleading not guilty in court, the premiere joins Weinstein’s recent reckoning in the media with the debut of the Hulu documentary Untouchable and the release of She Said by Times reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor, who first broke the story.)
“But instead of looking at how he’s getting away with it, we want to look at the why,” Leight says. “Why, despite ongoing movements against sexual violence, despite so many women coming forward, is it still happening? What are the cultural implications and how do we fix it? Who’s complicit in these crimes and what do they get out of it?”
It’s just one of the many big cases that Benson will face “right out of the gate,” Leight says, adding that “as she connects to each victim and survivor, the emotional stakes get higher and it takes a toll -- even on someone as strong as Olivia.”
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit season 21 premieres Thursday, Sept. 26 at 10 p.m. on NBC.