'She's been working very hard for 20 years, and she doesn't run as fast as she used to,' showrunner Michael Chernuchin warns

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It’s a big year for the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit squad — and according to the long-running NBC hit’s showrunner, it’ll be a shocking one too.

The series returns Thursday for a landmark 20th season, tying it with the original Law & Order and Gunsmoke as the longest-running prime-time drama ever. How do you kick off a milestone year like that? The same way SVU ended its last season: with a supersized two-hour episode. “We had so much fun doing it last season, we’re starting the season with one,” Michael Chernuchin says.

Thursday’s opener will be one of the series’ classic ripped-from-the-headlines tales — “one of the weirder family stories you’ve ever seen,” he says, teasing that people will be “shocked” by the episode’s events. In last season’s two-part finale, ADA Peter Stone (Philip Winchster) watched his sister die in front of him, a retaliation tied to a rape case the squad was investigating. When things pick back up, he’ll still be reeling from her murder. “He’s still feeling the guilt from that,” says Chernuchin.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit - Season 20
Credit: Barbara Nitke/NBC

The rest of the Special Victims Unit squad will also be finding themselves navigating new challenges — including Mariska Hargitay’s Olivia Benson, who will be “facing her own mortality” this coming season. Pressed for more details, Chernuchin would only reveal this: “She’s been working very hard for 20 years, and she doesn’t run as fast as she used to.”

Rollins (Kelli Giddish), meanwhile, will have a “huge surprise” in the form of a romantic relationship that started last year. And Ice-T’s Finn is “everybody’s Sherpa, everybody goes to him for his wisdom.” (Some things never change.)

Other episodes this season will tackle timely topics like immigration and incels (“If it’s in the New York Post, we do it,” Chernuchin quips), as well as episodes that center around the #MeToo movement. Fans can expect to see some new faces as well, including George Newbern (Scandal) as a heart surgeon and love interest for Rollins; Sandrine Holt (House of Cards) as a new psychologist, who is openly gay and has a wife and children; and Carl Weathers, bringing his Chicago Justice role to New York City. Dylan Walsh will also appear as one of the stars of that premiere two-parter.

And while the squad still has an entire new season of cases to tackle, Chernuchin and the rest of his team are looking ahead to — and laying the groundwork for — hitting that record-breaking 21-year milestone. “We want it to be so special,” he says. “We want it to go another five or six years, but becoming the longest-running show in history, we’re all building towards that.”

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit returns Thursday at 9 p.m. with that two-hour episode, before moving back to 10 p.m. beginning Oct. 4.

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit
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