With its upcoming 21st season, NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU” is primed to hit an important milestone: becoming the longest-running live-action series on a primetime network. But although its procedural format has not changed much since its inception, showrunner Warren Leight is still finding new ways to keep its storytelling fresh — from taking inspiration from a variety of sources rather than ripping from one specific headline, to incorporating evolving interview techniques.
“There’s been enormous research into this thing called ‘trauma-informed interview techniques.’ You saw at the Kavanaugh hearings there were these mostly older white male senators saying, ‘What time did this happen? What was the address?’ and people who undergo traumas don’t recall the things that are ‘Who, what, when, where.’ Which is why for years cops thought victims were lying because they couldn’t immediately come up with everything in a linear order,” Leight said at the Paley Center for Media in New York Wednesday night.
“With new techniques developed by the Army, you let people let the story unfold; you ask them what they remember in a different way. Because, what happens during trauma is your executive function shuts down and your lizard brain takes over, and that’s where your memory is encoded. So, learning about that informs our season. All the interview scenes with victims will be different this year.”
The record-making 21st season of “Law & Order: SVU” starts with a case centered on an actress who accuses a high-powered media mogul of attempted rape, which might make many viewers think of Harvey Weinstein. But Leight shared that he feels the best episodes of the show are the ones that “take 15 different stories and read 10 different articles on each one, and invent a perp or construct a scenario that has elements of all of them.” Leight has found these are the episodes that “resonate more” with the audience.
Series star Ice-T who plays Sergeant Odafin “Fin” Tutuola spoke to how the show resonates by admitting he didn’t know “this show was therapy for people” in the early days, but after about a year of women coming up to him and saying thank you, he started to see its importance in a new light.
“A lot of them are getting closure in a way because they’ve seen justice and maybe in their life they didn’t have justice,” he said. “So they’re hoping that maybe [Fin] will get justice. I’ll be that hero that’ll get that bad guy off the street. It’s wonderful to be on something that actually has some socially redeeming value considering most entertainment is just entertainment.”
For series star and executive producer Mariska Hargitay, who plays Lieutenant Olivia Benson, the personal and professional have interwoven greatly over the years. She created the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004 as an aid to survivors of sexual violence, child abuse and domestic violence. She also recently won a News & Broadcasting Emmy for her documentary “I Am Evidence,” shedding light on the issue of rape kits remaining untested in police custody, an issue that will show up in an upcoming episode of “SVU.”
“We’re telling stories which we’ve waited too long to hear,” Hargitay told Variety. “We’re trying to change the culture and trying to raise all survivors’ voices, but also those whose voices have been historically marginalized. So, that’s what we aim to do here — to make survivors feel like the world is a little smaller and they are in community and are being respected and dealt with with empathy and compassion.”