Warren Leight joined Law & Order: Special Victims Unit as its showrunner just before star Christopher Meloni jumped ship. It was a particularly dismal time for NBC. Nobody would blame Leight if he wanted out of the long-running procedural after just one season. But it seems the opposite is true.
"I don't want it to be a victory lap," Leight tells TVGuide.com of a possible Season 14. "I want it to be 14 years down, seven to go, as opposed to 14 years down and it's been a good run."
The current season of SVU hasn't been its strongest, but it has perhaps been its most interesting. After the exits of Meloni and longtime showrunner Neal Baer, ratings have dropped (6.9 million/1.9 average versus last season's 8.8 million/2.7) and with little help from its lead-in, the struggling Rock Center with Brian Williams. But ratings don't tell the whole story.
"I get so tired of people saying that the show is down from Meloni," Leight says. "From the point of view of scripted hour-longs, we're performing very strongly for NBC. Would we perform differently for a different network? Probably. Or with a different lead-in? Probably."
Yes, the numbers are down, but the procedural is enjoying a strong season creatively, thanks to a riveting guest-starring turn from Emmy winner Andre Braugher, the successful integration of new cast members Danny Pino (Det. Nick Amaro) and Kelli Giddish (Det. Amanda Rollins) and, most notably, more personalized storytelling — a major departure from the franchise's all-business tradition. "[Law & Order creator] Dick Wolf always says personal stories come in ticks or drops on Law & Order and I wanted a little bit more than that," Leight says. "I think it's interesting as long as it doesn't turn too soapy or derail the investigation. ... I don't think we'll do an all-musical episode or a Christmas episode or anything like that."
To introduce the newbies, the writers slowly pulled back the curtain on Rollins' gambling problem and Amaro's marital struggles, respectively. "Once I was cast, the question was: How are we going to figure this character out?" says Pino, who logged seven seasons on CBS' Cold Case. "How do we plot out a story line that would not only be interesting to the fans and to the writers, but to myself, coming in from a previous police procedural?"
Story lines have also delved deeper into the backgrounds of the veterans, like Fin (Ice-T), who must come to terms with his son's homosexuality when his partner is the victim of a hate crime on Wednesday's episode (10/9c on NBC). "I wouldn't mind knowing a little more about Fin," Ice-T says. "I've never been home. I don't have a car. I don't even know if I've kissed a girl in 13 years."
The trick, Leight says, is how to blend the personal and professional, hence Benson (Mariska Hargitay) finally got a boyfriend this season, but he's an ADA named David Haden (Harry Connick Jr.). "The first guy she sees is a work colleague and it allowed us to intertwine story lines so it wasn't too disorienting for viewers," Leight says. "They were more or less working on cases so they could cross professionally. We weren't just cutting to her meeting the prospective in-laws in Connecticut."
Hargitay praised the more personalized story line at an NBC press event in April and called this past season "a new beginning" for Benson -- and the show. "I feel like Haden opened [her] heart again and there's hope now for Benson," she said. "I am unbelievably surprised and so excited and happy. It was such a lesson to me about one chapter closes and another one opens."
Adds Leight: "NBC is not a procedural-heavy network, so they're happy to see this," he says. "I know when Dick is upset. He's not shy about letting me know, and I have to say, he was very supportive of what went on this year. Dick saw that I wasn't turning it into a Desperate SVU Detectives-type show."
The question is: Will the show be renewed? Nothing has been announced, but Hargitay recently signed a new deal with Universal TV, which produces SVU. "It's the annual sit-down between NBC and Dick Wolf. This goes into a category of things beyond my control," Leight says. "I believe the show will come back and there are just business deals that need to be worked out between people whose pay grade is above mine."
Should the series return, Leight hopes to push those boundaries even further with season-long arcs for the entire cast and possibly another love interest for Benson. "Haden isn't the end of the line for her romantic life," he says. "That may have been the rebound off of Elliott and now she's ready."
Law & Order: SVU airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on NBC.