Christopher Meloni, Mariska Hargitay

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is not the same show it was when new executive producer Warren Leight was hired to run it.

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Since Leight (Law & Order: Criminal Intent, In Treatment, Lights Out) took the reins four months ago, veteran cast member Christopher Meloni has left the show and he's been replaced by two new faces: Kelli Giddish and Danny Pino. But Leight is looking at the positive. "We call it SVU 2.0 this year," Leight tells TVGuide.com. "I'm aware of how successful and well-liked this show is. I'm just trying to figure out how you rejuvenate it after 12 years."

In the expansive interview below, Leight discusses how he plans to do just that. Plus: He gives us the scoop on how losing a partner will affect Detective Benson (Mariska Hargitay), what we can expect from the new detectives and whether Meloni might return for a final goodbye.

What brought you back to the Law & Order franchise after working on In Treatment and Lights Out.
Warren Leight: Naively, I thought, 'I don't want to launch [a new show].' ... I thought it might be nice to have a little bit more budget, to have eight days to shoot, and not have to reinvent the wheel. Of course, I thought this as I'm coming in the door. Then, Chris Meloni left.

So you had no idea he was leaving when you joined?
Leight: I ran into Chris twice in the transition month where I was just beginning to kick the tires, and he was guarded with me. I said, 'Well, I'm hoping it works out.' He was like, 'We'll see.' The impression people had was that this was this bizarre ballet that happens every spring. You know, there's sort of a "nothing gets done until the last minute, and then it all gets done" mentality. But, no, I had no idea.

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What kind of planning had you done before you knew Meloni was out?
Leight: I had a theory about the co-dependence of Elliot and Olivia, and I had questions about the health of that relationship. One of the things that worried me was, like in any family dynamic, after a while people get assigned certain roles. In a healthy environment, people can switch roles a little more. I worried that there was too much anger coming from Elliot and too much empathy coming from Olivia. I had just begun to wonder, 'What do we do to shake it up?' Then Chris' departure happened. It forced the issue in a good way: Instead of having to push people out of their roles, by definition their roles have changed now.

How does the new season deal with Stabler and what happened in last year's finale?
Leight: We begin with Elliot's character still on administrative leave, and we deal with it that way. If you're ever involved in a police shooting, you go on admin leave, and you're paid while they investigate the shooting. So, we start out with the squad room that doesn't have Elliot, and then it plays out.

Is there any plan to have Meloni return to give Stabler a proper send-off?
Leight:
There's talk. I don't know that it's viable talk. He's not in the first six episodes, for sure. One of the things we're trying to do is stay in the moment. In real life, do you always get closure when relationships end? At a certain point, I guess you would wonder what would it be like to have him wander in Episode 15 or something, but I don't know. The audience knows Chris Meloni's left the show.

I imagine his presence will still be felt for a while after he's gone.
Leight: Absolutely. The character most affected by his departure is Olivia. I think in the old days of Law & Order, you'd rip a limb off, attach a new limb, and go back and pitch. Rub some dirt in the wound and go out there. We're trying to do that a little. To my mind and to Mariska's mind, [Stabler's exit] will be playing out over several episodes — sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in overt ways.

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What do you see as the arc for Benson this season?
Leight:
I think she's untethered at the start. In a weird way, her character never had to question things because Elliot did the questioning for her. Now, she finds herself evolving into somebody who sees the gray a little bit from time to time. Now she has to pay attention to different things, she has to understand things differently. I think that makes it very difficult, professionally or romantically, to partner up anew.  Readjusting to life without a partner of 12 years is [the focus] for the first quarter of the season. Then, [there are] the first tentative steps of re-engaging with other people and finding your footing. Ultimately, loss can be liberating. I'm trying to chart the emotional life of somebody who's gone through a huge separation, and I'll see where that takes her. But I think there will be fledgling steps at relationships and partnerships, and we'll see what takes or doesn't.

Is one of those fledgling relationships with Andre Braugher's character?
Leight:
I don't know where it's going, but we haven't made any of those decisions yet.  I get a little frustrated when people start accusing me and yelling at me about something that I haven't done. We haven't written a word of this yet.

But do they share some sort of bond?
Leight:
Olivia doesn't really have anyone outside the squad room. You can bitch about things at work, but who do you have who has a little perspective on it? [His] job takes a lot out of him the same way being a detective for Olivia takes a lot out of her. I think they have more in common if we can make it work.

There's been some confusion about Benson's future role. What is her relationship with the new detectives? Is she their boss? Their partner?
Leight: She's not their boss, but she is an experienced detective. I talked to a bunch of cops, and when new guys come into the squad room, they don't get assigned partners right away. You want to see how the new guys are doing. You want to see what teams work best. You'll see rotations. In the same way the captain is looking at this team in the squad room, I'm looking at what combinations work well. There's more of an ensemble feel to the show this season.

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What can you tell us about the two new detectives?
Leight: You have detectives now coming out of college with degrees in forensic psychology. That's Kelli Giddish's character. Amanda Rollins is up from the South. She's self-made, and she's had a lot of book training. She has the kind of training you get now at Quantico. That was missing from the squad room: Somebody who approaches things with actual technical knowledge ... an almost intellectual, academic, very structured approach. The other thing that seems to be missing from the squad room was somebody who [is] actually trying to elicit confessions through empathy. Olivia has great empathy for the victims, but there was a lot of shouting at the perps, especially with Chris' character. That doesn't get you a good confession. I thought it would be interesting to have somebody come in who's almost a con artist, who really has an intuitive sense of when people are lying or telling the truth. [Danny's character] reads people very well. He gets on their side and takes the onus of the crime they committed away from them. He appears to not be judging them.

You're bringing back Stephanie March, Diane Neal and Linus Roache. Why was that important to you?
Leight: Chris leaving is upsetting to a lot of people. My thought was it softens the blow. Also, Stephanie March and Diane Neal are iconic DAs for this show. Part of it is a refocusing toward law and order. In the real world, this unit works very closely with the district attorney's office because of the gray nature of these crimes and the difficulty of corroboration. The show had more medical than legal the last several years. So, the template of the show has changed a bit.

You are now running the last surviving piece of the Law & Order franchise in the United States. Does that add pressure?
Leight: I'm aware of it, yes. [Laughs] It's a storied franchise, and I don't want to go down with the last ship. I'd rather this be the turning point or a regeneration of the franchise. It was made clear to me that — and this was before Chris had left — if the show kept going the way it was going, at most it had two years left. Probably just one. If you keep doing everything you've been doing, you'll be gone. That's an interesting message to get when you take a new job. I have to hope that ... the changes being made this year lead to another five years for this show. And clearly, this summer made the case for why this show needs to be on the air. It felt like every week there was a story about powerful men behaving badly or strange goings on. In New York, the number of murders is down 75 percent from its peak, but that's not the case with this kind of crime at all. We have a wall in the writers' room that has 50 New York Post headlines on it from the summer. It's not like the show's original conceit doesn't make sense anymore.

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You have already planned to do takes on Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Arnold Schwarzenegger's stories. Will you continue ripping from the headlines, or do you want to focus on your own storytelling?
Leight: It'll evolve. But if you're doing a show called SVU and you ignore all of the stories brought up by this summer, you're an idiot. It's exactly what this show is about. But while we're ripping from the headlines, the second show of the season is about male-on-male violence. It is inspired by a couple of real-life stories, but it isn't an area that people talk about much and it's a horrifying fact of life for a lot of men. And there are times where we have scripted stories, and the actual events ripped us off.

What other changes are you making this season?
Leight:
The season ended with a blood bath in the squad room. In real life, if somebody got into a squad room with a gun and shot people, there would be repercussions. So, I redid this, I moved that. There used to be a cell in the middle of the squad room, and we've moved that to a more secure location. Little things. We've installed some boundaries. Also, Capt. Cragen (Dann Florek) is aware that his unit has screwed up. He's a little bit less of a paper tiger. The captain is regaining control of the squad room. I think it's gotten away from him in the last few years. That's the problem when you have people who've been in your squad room for 12 years: They do what they want. We're also playing the beat of there are more eyes on the squad room this year. In truth, there are more eyes on the show this year than in Season 11 or 10. I just keep trying to recycle what's actually going on into the production of the show.

So, what's your biggest goal this year?
Leight:
First of all, survive. Survive the transition and make a compelling case for why people should continue to watch the show and come back to the show. That's on a business level. On a thematic level, we want to explore the gray of all of this. And to explore the psyches of victims and perps a little bit more and the effect this work takes on the people who do it. When a cop tells me about a real-life interrogation he did, I'm on the edge of my chair. That's where we want to be.

Law & Order: SVU premieres Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 10/9c on NBC.