Law & Order: Special Victims Unit kicks off its 14th season by asking what once may have been an unthinkable question: Is Capt. Cragen a murderer?
"He should have not put that dead hooker in his bed," executive producer Warren Leight says of last season's cliff-hanger with a laugh. "Even if we know Capt. Cragen, it's just never good to wake up with a dead hooker in your bed. That means you did something wrong."
Warren Leight: I enjoyed ending the season that way. And then we got lucky because NBC said they wanted us to do two hours [on premiere night]. They didn't necessarily mean a two-parter. That's a big departure for Law & Order to have a three-part story spread out over three episodes. It required a little bit of persuasion, but essentially we have a movie that we shot over the course of 24 days. There are high stakes. Not only is there a dead hooker in Cragen's bed, but obviously there's a lot of tension between Amaro and Benson. We kept a lot of plates spinning and it was just a thrill to get to work in a longer form, For Dann Florek I don't think it was too much fun. I think he prefers a tailored suit to an orange jumpsuit.
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You could have presumably brought any of the SVU detectives under suspicion as last season's big twist. Why Cragen?
Leight: He's the father figure. You think he's the last guy that would happen to, but he has his demons. We believe he has them under control. He was by far the most interesting character to involve, and if it's a frame-up, he would be a good guy to frame. There was that weird little episode, "Russian Brides," where he went on that date. We saw a side of him we haven't seen before. One of the things you could take away from that scene is underneath his character's stoicism is some loneliness. And loneliness can lead people to make bad decisions.
Will Cragen's case be resolved in the premiere, or will it take some time?
Leight: Some things are resolved, but there are long-lasting repercussions. It's not Homeland. I admire and I envy their schedule, but I can't drag it out for 23 episodes. What we're trying to do is maintain continuity from one episode to the next. Episodes can be freestanding, but if Amaro and Benson have a tough time in one episode, it's not like the next episode it didn't happen. So we have a lot more continuity, a lot of story lines spilling over.
Paget Brewster is guest-starring on the premiere. What can you tell us about her character?
Leight: She's playing Paula Foster, who's the head of the D.A.'s public integrity unit. All of this is falling into her lap. She has a renegade squad that is desperately trying to free the Captain. She has Amaro as the last person to see the dead hooker alive. She obviously has pressure from the mayor's office saying, "Clean this up and clean it up now." She's between a rock and a hard place, and her relationship with Olivia is very interesting. Olivia is doing everything she can to free Cragen, and Paget Brewster's character is trying to figure out what the hell happened.
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Is the relationship completely antagonistic, or does Benson realize that Foster could actually help her?
Leight: They have to find a way to work together or neither of them is going to get what they need. But there's suspicion on both sides. The cop wants the arrest; the DA wants the conviction. And those are two very separate things. So Paget's character has some very tough choices to make, and Benson is more of a true believer. She doesn't understand that compromises need to be made from time to time.
How will Benson & Co. respond to their new interim captain, played by Adam Baldwin?
Leight: Adam's character is a fixer. He comes into situations that are all screwed up, and his job is to figure out who's straight, who's corrupt, who can he trust to restore order. If he does the job right, he moves on. He's politically connected at NYPD and he likes moving the pieces on the board. That's an interesting guy to throw into SVU, because Olivia and Amaro are pieces that don't like other people moving them.
We'll also see Amaro's wife again in the premiere, right?
Leight: Yes. We're trying to show the cumulative toll this sort of work takes on our heroes. We know his marriage is on very shaky ground. It was working while his wife was overseas and since she's come back it's just been a disaster. Their big question is: Can they work through it or is it over?
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What personal stories are you hoping to tell with the other characters?
Leight: We're hoping to see Rollins' sister arrive at some point this season. We referenced her a bit last year, and we hope to see a little bit of what shaped Rollins [Kelli Giddish]. I'd love to get a bit more for Finn [Ice-T], who's been underserved in some ways. I'd like to find out a little bit more about him, like: Does he have a house? [Laughs] We saw a little bit of his son last year but there's clearly more to understand about him. We may even get a glimpse of Munch's [Richard Belzer] mother. We don't know anything about her. I think it's kind of interesting.
Has crafting this season been different now that you've been on the job a year?
Leight: It's great to have a season under my belt. There was something exciting about hitting the ground running. I feel liberated from the "Can this show survive without Elliott?" thing. That drove me crazy last year. We were on a network that was having problems and the headline writers kept blaming [Christopher] Meloni's departure for the show's low ratings. The thing I am most proud of is at the end of the year, our finale was NBC's highest-rated finale. We had seven episodes in a row, and each week the ratings stepped up. I felt like, "Now we know there is a show after Elliott," which I always knew that there was. I enjoyed being underestimated. It was like a little challenge, and this year the challenge is to keep it interesting and to get past the transition.
You're bringing Law & Order: Criminal Intent's Kathryn Erbe to your squad room this season. How did that happen?
Leight: I did Criminal Intent for seven years. One of the things that's strange is SVU fans watch Law & Order and Criminal Intent fans watch Law & Order, but Criminal Intent fans do not watch SVU. There's not as much crossover between those shows as you might guess. And now that there's only one show left, I'd like to bring those fans together. When we started to plot the fourth episode, we needed a Homeland Security agent. I didn't want to just keep throwing new people into this mix, and our casting director said "What about your old friend Katie?" We were all like, "That's it. We're done."
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So what is her role exactly?
Leight: Once Katie said yes, we retooled the script a bit. The backstory is she worked the Major Case Unit for over a decade. Her partner left and she was looking for something new. She's on loan to Homeland Security on a joint terrorism task force, which is high stakes and her character can handle that. It was great to have scenes between Katie and Mariska. These are two women who had long-term partnerships with difficult guys. These are two people who've been underestimated — who've worked just as hard, just as long —and people don't quite get how good they are.
Is this a one-time thing, or will we see more of her?
Leight: She'll come back. I don't know exactly when, but she'll be coming back. Katie is so believable as an NYPD cop. The notion of bringing in someone new when she was just sitting there seems crazy to me. She's tough and she can be funny, but don't mess with her.
Safe to assume you'll still be ripping from the headlines this season?
Leight: I would say there's an element of headline-ripping. Our third episode of the season is very much a courtroom drama with Roger Bart and Raul Esparza and Anna Chlumsky. Raul comes in as a DA loaded for bear. Anna Chlumsky's character has written a book called Twenty Five Acts about a woman giving her life over to bondage and domination. The book is a runaway best seller and every woman in America is reading the book. She goes on a talk show, then goes out to dinner with the host, and then things turn ugly between her and the host.
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Do you have an overall theme for the season?
Leight: We're doing a lot with secrets. The secrets people keep and the damage those secrets do is part of the first five episodes. It's an interesting way of looking at a lot of what happens in sex crimes. People stay in denial and hide things in themselves. People can seem to be decent, but people lead double lives and. How those secrets come out and what happens when the secrets come out is an interesting way of framing a lot of the episodes.
And will we learn that our heroes have their own share of secrets?
Leight: I think we have to. It's not fair for just the bad guys to have secrets. In the premiere, Paget's character says to Olivia, "Everybody has secrets. You do. I do. The captain does." So, of course we'll be seeing some of the ones our guys have. Obviously something's going on with Cragen, but no one is exactly what they seem to be.
Leight: [Laughs] If I give you that, then they're not secrets.
Law & Order SVU's two-hour Season 14 premiere airs Wednesday at 9/8c on NBC.