Detective Amaro may be gone fromLaw & Order: SVU, but there are still many more changes to come.
Although Danny Pino's exit from the series will not be discussed laboriously in the two-hour Season 17 premiere (Wednesday at 9/8c, NBC), the emotional weight of Amaro's loss will be felt through the first several episodes of the new season, particularly by Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and Rollins (Kelli Giddish).
"We don't get an immediate replacement," executive producer Warren Leight tells TVGuide.com. "So, the first quarter of the season we're dealing with people scrambling and trying to stay afloat. This guy was a rock in the department. He was there emotionally for Benson and Rollins — and at times physically for Rollins — so they're both missing him. We don't have people moaning about it, but you sense that it's changed the rhythm."
And that sense of change will seep into all the characters' lives this season. "This year is about transitions," Leight says. "Where everyone is at the beginning of the season is not where they'll be at the end. A show in its 17th year cannot be static."
Although Benson already made one transition at the end of last season when she formally adopted baby Noah, in the new season, after passing the lieutenant's exam, she will be forced to hire a new sergeant. "One thing we'll see early on is a lot of be careful what you wish for," Leight says. "You take the lieutenant's exam and pass, and suddenly you have to be more political in your job than you've had to be in the past. That's not her strong suit."
Indeed, the hiring of Benson's new No. 2 becomes completely political when Deputy Chief William Dodds (Peter Gallagher) assigns his own son (guest star Andy Karl) to the SVU squad, much to the chagrin of Finn (Ice-T), Rollins and Carisi (Peter Scanavino). "These three detectives will have to have a new boss who doesn't know anything about the job they do," Leight says. "Finn has been there 17 years and will deal with someone who just got there giving him orders. Nobody likes to be told they're doing their job wrong. He seeks a certain amount of autonomy, and that may be called into question."
Scoop: SVU casts Benson's new No. 2
Before those changes are felt, however, the team must solve a tricky case involving serial killer Greg Yates (Dallas Roberts), who, despite being in jail, is suspected in another murder. Did the cops miss one of his victims or is a copycat on the loose? Although some of this story is inspired by the suspected crimes of Robert Durst highlighted on The Jinx ("There is no burping in this episode," Leight quips), it becomes a psychological thriller between Yates and Rollins.
"Yates had a strange, disturbing relationship with Rollins and that continues in the two-parter," Leight says. "How involved was he in this murder, if at all? Does he know anything about it? He wants Rollins to know he's innocent of this one but that he also might be able to solve it. How deep into the rabbit hole of Yates' sick mind does Rollins go? Yates throws a good deal of believable evidence in the direction of someone we deal with pretty often. So, we're now investigating a guy involved in law enforcement in the city at the request of a serial killer. Do you trust a serial killer when he drops a dime on someone you work with?"
Regardless of the outcome of the case, viewers can expect some major upheaval in Rollins' personal life. Could that mean the show is writing Giddish's real-life pregnancy into the show? "By the end of the premiere you'll know part of the answer to that question," Leight teases, adding that much of Rollins' drama this season will come from other aspects of her family — namely the return of her sister (Lindsay Pulsipher) and the introduction of her mother (Virginia Madsen). "Even if their intent is to be supportive, and I'm not even sure it is, her family showing up is not a great thing for her character," Leight says.
Benson's foray into motherhood will be equally challenging as she continues to try to balance work with her new responsibilities at home. "Being a parent, there's always something and it always comes at the worst possible time," Leight says. "Baby Noah's first six months were not easy and there will be ripple effects to come. The pressure to do your job and be present for your child will increase, and she'll be looking at what are her priorities. When it was just a question of taking care of herself or doing the job, she neglected herself. This is a character whose life was way out of balance for the entire run of the show, and I think Benson needs to find more balance, which maybe means hard choices."
But perhaps the most notable transition this season is another one behind the scenes. Leight, who signed an overall deal with Sony last year, was allowed to do one more season of SVU. After weathering the storm of losing Christopher Meloni and eventually improving the veteran drama's ratings, Leight will leave the show at the end of this season. But he doesn't see an end in sight for the show.
"There's a reason it's a year of transitions," Leight jokes of art imitating life. "The last thing I'll do is leave the show in a lurch. It's 17 months' notice. I want to make sure the end of the season is poised to continue and there is a compelling reason to stay with it. If I do the job right, there will be reason for everyone to come back for a Season 18. My goal is not to tank it."
Law & Order : SVU premieres Wednesday at 9/8c on NBC.