When Law & Order: Special Victims Unit returns for season 18, tension abounds as Chief Dodds (Peter Gallagher) holds Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) personally responsible for the death of his son — all while she struggles to balance still working in the field while being the boss.
Behind the scenes, there’s also a new leader on the long-running NBC procedural. Rick Eid, who previously worked as a co-executive producer on the flagship Law & Order, takes over as showrunner for Warren Leight. But with 17 seasons under the show’s belt, Eid isn’t planning on reinventing the wheel. “The show’s great and successful and we just want to keep doing great, high-quality work,” he tells EW.
Below, the new SVU boss details what it’s like taking the reins, what’s in store for Benson this year, the possibility of a Stabler (Christopher Meloni) return, and the new ripped-from-the-headlines episodes ahead — paging Donald Trump?
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you sit down to plan season 18, what were your first steps upon taking over as the new showrunner?
RICK EID: It’s challenging. It’s been on the air for 17 years, it’s a great show, it’s a respected show, it’s got a rabid and engaged fan base, so it’s daunting. I was always a fan, but I dug back in and tried to watch as many episodes as I could, and then I tried to talk to as many people involved with this show as I could. Mariska and I started talking a lot, Julie Martin and I started talking a lot, Dick [Wolf] at Wolf Films — so I tried to talk to as many people who have been involved in this show as possible. I started hanging out on the set, even before the season wrapped. I just tried to get as much information as I possibly could, and listen to the people who made it so good and made it so powerful, and just try to absorb, and then just started thinking about it in my own head what got me excited about it and just went from there.
In what ways do you think SVU is changing things this year?
Things organically change. It’s not like we started the season saying, “We must change Law & Order: SVU!” The show’s great and successful and we just want to keep doing great, high-quality work. So there was never, “How do we change things up? What’s the new wrinkle?” I think it’s more just like, “How do we continue to tell great stories, powerful stories, stories in the zeitgeist, things that matter to people that are top of mind in the best way possible?” Any time there’s an influx of new writers, things will change organically. Having said that, our goal is to reward longtime viewers and to pick up on all the things we feel the fans have really connected with and are excited about.
What makes you most nervous in taking over the show?
Screwing it up. [Laughs] That’s a joke. I’m excited, not nervous frankly, but of course you want the fans to continue to respond the way they have, so I guess the thing that makes me most nervous is disappointing the fan base. But I definitely am not approaching it from a place where I’m nervous; I’m just trying my best to maintain the high standards that the show has had for so long.
Did you get any tips from Warren Leight before he left?
We talked generally. We didn’t get into specifics in any way about like, “Here’s how you make the show. This is what I wouldn’t do.” We talked generally about the show and the transition and he was excited that there’d be new eyes. He was excited for me to take it, so it was more general conversations, we didn’t did get into any writer or character-type stuff. Julie Martin, who has been with this show as an executive producer for years, on the other hand, I’ve had extensive conversations about the transition, season 18, what works, what doesn’t work, so she’s been a partner on this since day one.
As someone who has watched the show before, was there anything you were dying to do in season 18?
The world changes so fast that there are new things that just develop, there are new stories, there are things that, believe it or not, they haven’t done. There’s a lot of stories we’re super excited about for season 18. I don’t know if they’ve been necessarily done before or to what capacity they’ve been before. I wouldn’t say it was like, “Oh my god, I’m dying to do a show about X.” No, for me it has been just more specific about, “Oh, this is a great story, it would be a perfect SVU episode,” than “Oh my god, I’ve always thought SVU should do this story.”
Where are you picking up this season?
It’s maybe a month or so; we’re not super time-specific, so it’s not like it’s time-coded, but maybe a month or so after the death of Mike Dodds (Andy Karl) in season 17, that’s how the finale ended. That is still weighing heavily on the SVU team and certainly the character of Benson. We pick up from there. It’s not the day after, some time has passed, but obviously the tragedy has not passed. So we pick up emotionally from that place.
How does Dodds’ death affect everyone?
Well, Benson feels responsible for it, for bringing him along on that phone call or to that domestic situation. She feels that there are probably different ways that that situation could have unfolded, that she could have protected him, it could have been her — there’s a lot of things as a smart police officer, and as a compassionate human being, you could lather that incident up into, “It’s my fault.” Benson, as a character, is that compassionate and complex, and she’s feeling responsible. Throughout the season, we will see some of that responsibility and guilt. She will begin to protect her team more, she certainly doesn’t want to lose another member of her team, and she may be overly protective. She ultimately may try to insert herself into situations that she shouldn’t, overcompensating possibly. There’s a lot there to explore for season 18 in terms of character psychological arc for her.
At the same time, Chief Dodds is obviously struggling with the idea that his son was just killed. He unconsciously or consciously is also struggling with the idea that Benson was there and, in his mind, possibly responsible. So you’re going to see some tension between those two. Certainly in the first episode, you’ll see a lot of tension between those two. It’s a big [episode], it’s an exciting and emotional and very topical [episode]. You’ll see Chief Dodds and Benson at odds over the direction of the case, and at the same time, you’ll see them exploring this complicated chapter in their life, the death of Mike Dodds.
What does the working dynamic look this year with Olivia in charge and Fin (Ice-T) as her reluctant No. 2?
It’s more about she’s in charge, but she’s still in the field and acting as a detective. We refer to her internally here as a player/coach. She’s the boss, she’s responsible, but she is not behind a desk all day. Fin is her No. 2 and they’ve got a long history together and that implicit trust between each other. Fin is Fin, I don’t think you’ll see a drastic change in the way he operates, I think he handles it with grace. You won’t see a huge shift there in the way that Fin does business frankly.
Will we see some new members joining the squad?
We may see new members. Yeah, we may see some new cast members. I’m not really sure exactly when or how we’re going to introduce some new faces, but we have definitely discussed the idea of new faces or a new face on the show. But I don’t know when we’ll see that.
What is the squad facing professionally this year?
They’re a man down, so I think Benson is a player/coach, so she’s leading and the boss, yet at the same time she’s out in the street working cases. That’s a challenge, having a lot of responsibility, having a lot of accountability, and still acting as a lead detective, and being a mother, so she’s got plenty of challenges on her front. In terms of the squad room, in the team there’s the obvious challenges of solving these cases. I don’t know if we’re going to play, “The funding has been cut,” and any sort of new idea of external challenge or force or being shorthanded. The challenges are just it’s a tricky world out there today, there’s a lot of guys and people doing bad things and they’re trying to keep the streets safe. I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of new external forces presenting challenges; we’re not going to play into that.
On the personal side, what’s the state of Tucker (Robert John Burke) and Olivia’s relationship? It almost seemed like he was going to prpose in the finale.
Benson, I think she’s a complicated, smart woman, and ultimately the relationship with Tucker will be a complicated relationship. They both want this to work out and we will see if it does. It’s two people who have seen a lot in their careers and in their life, and they’re trying to find a common ground and a way to make it work. But it’s just a question of can these two people who’ve seen what they’ve seen, connect in a way that they can ride off into the sunset? We’ll see, we’re going to explore that.
Throughout last season, we saw Olivia relying more on alcohol to get through the trauma of working in SVU. Will her self-medication be addressed this season?
I don’t know if we will explicitly address it. It may come up in an episode, we may see some of it or hear about it, but that it’s one of those things we saw and was played. Given what was going on last season, that may have been her way to medicate and cope. It’s unclear if, this season, she’ll cope or medicate the same way. I mean if she does, we will explore it, but I don’t think we’re going to comment on the lack of it in any way, if you know what I mean.
What will see for Rollins (Kelli Giddish) this season?
There’s an episode where her sister (Lindsay Pulsipher) gets out of prison and she returns, so she will be in her life in some form or fashion. Their relationship will take on a little new meaning, there will be a little discovery between the two of them that might ultimately bring them closer together and heal some of the volatile, turbulent past between the two of them. Rollins has a child. With all of these characters, we try to keep them as dimensionalzed as possible and explore the idea of them having lives when they’re not working. We’ll continue to dig into her personal life as the season progresses. But the main thing in the works right now is exploring her relationship with her sister.
What about her relationship with Carisi (Peter Scanavino)? It seemed there might’ve been something brewing with them.
They’ve got a great relationship, that dynamic continues and we’ll explore the possibility of that becoming something more. It’s one of those things that they just really care about each other as people and as coworkers, they look out and are very protective of each other. It is possible that it could morph into something more, but it’s one of those relationships that would morph out of such a profound respect and friendship. We may see that and we may not [Laughs]. Right now, it’s just two good friends, two coworkers that like and respect each other and have an easy, natural shorthand between them.
After passing the bar exam, will we see Carisi switching over to the other side?
Yeah, he’s exploring that. There’s an episode, episode 3, where we see him having a meeting with the District Attorney’s Office, the Brooklyn DA. He meets at the Brooklyn DA’s office and he’s trying to figure out, frankly, if he’s a cop or if he’s a lawyer, and where he can be more useful, what he’d like more, and who he is. That will be something we will explore throughout the season, is he meant for the SVU or would he be happier, now that he’s passed the bar, possibly being a prosecutor? That’s something he’s trying to figure out. Benson is aware of it and the other team members are aware of it and are supportive. “Whatever you want to do.” But he, for the moment, continues to be a member of the SVU team as a detective.
What’s next for Barba (Raúl Esparza)?
He’s got some interesting cases. He’s exploring a lot of challenging issues. One specific episode we’re shooting now, which I think is a really interesting thing that he’s doing, is exploring the concept of rape by impersonation. It’s an interesting topic in the legal world. Basically if you fraudulently induce someone to have sex, is that a crime? Is that rape? Certain states have some law on the books that say that is a crime, that is sexual assault, and other states don’t. New York does not have a specific statute speaking to that, but we do an episode, it’s our third episode, where someone is pretending to be the director of admissions at a prestigious university, so he can have sex with desperate helicopter moms dying to get their kids into school. He’s got this imposter exploiting the fake power that he pretends to have to seduce these women with the promise of, “I’ll get your son or daughter into said prestigious university.” Benson is so outraged by this man’s repulsive game that she and Barba decide to arrest this person and try him for rape, knowing full well that there isn’t necessarily a statute on the books that covers this crime. You see Barba being a little more political, a little bit more of an activist, and a little bit more willing to go out there on a limb for things he believes in.
What ripped-from-the-headlines storylines will you be exploring? Will you be doing a Donald Trump one?
Our season premiere is unfortunately very topical, it got more and more topical. It was inspired by, originally, the San Bernardino mass shooting. By the time we started working on it, sadly there were two or three other horrible mass shootings, most notably the Orlando one. We start with a mass-shooting incident that may or may not be a terrorist activity. It turns into, ultimately, a very emotional story for Benson, to get to see her surprisingly connect with the wife of the shooter. We think that’s a really exciting opening episode that’s unfortunately quite topical.
Our second episode is inspired by the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer. We explore something in that vein, sort of inspired by that about a person who was wrongfully imprisoned for rape and may or may not have, upon release, raped someone else. It’s about the idea of someone who has spent 17 years in prison for something he didn’t do, gets out and a month later is charged with rape. We explore the idea of whether an innocent man sent away can be turned into a rapist by the prison system that he was wrongfully sent to.
It’s possible we will explore some of zeitgeist political-themed episode involving an iconoclastic candidate. But I guess, overall, the idea is that we continue to be inspired by real events and topical events and things that are in the zeitgeist.
Are you planning any crossovers with the Chicago shows?
We don’t have anything. We haven’t started working on anything at the moment, but I’d say it’s very possible we will do a crossover.
Do you feel like there is still closure needed when it comes to Benson and Stabler that you hope to someday explore?
If this show ever gets to the end, it would be great to find a way to dig deeper into the Stabler/Benson relationship. That’s something, if should that day come, it would be great to find a way to explore it, but we’re not thinking about the end just now. Clearly that is an important part of the show and such an integral part of the origins of the show, that if the show were to end someday, I think in a perfect world it would be great to explore that.
Do you hope to get any other familiar faces back this season?
We will definitely have a lot of the rotating cast of defense lawyers. Liz Marvel appears in episode 1, she’s great. Delaney Williams appears in episode 2, so a lot of the familiar faces on the defense lawyer side come back. You never know who is going to pop through the door. We’ve got some interesting casting that we can talk about down the road, but until things are official I don’t want to talk about it. We’ll have some interesting guest stars and we may have a new face on the show as well.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit returns Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.