The death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality have renewed the conversation about how police are portrayed in crime dramas that have dominated the television landscape for decades. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit showrunner Warren Leight discussed how the protests will impact the show's future, as well as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. SVU is now the longest-running primetime television drama in U.S. history, and like many other crime shows, portrays "good cops" as officers who will do anything to put criminals behind bars, including bending laws.
In a new interview for The Hollywood Reporter's TV's Top 5 podcast, Leight said Floyd's death "has to come up and it will" during the show's upcoming 22nd season. "There are ways, we will find our way in to tell the story," Leight explained. "Presumably our cops will still be trying to do the right thing but it’s going to be harder for them and they’re going to understand why it's hard for them."
Leight was asked about the dominance of police dramas, which almost always portray the police as heroes. A New York Magazine piece noted that even while cable news networks have featured wall-to-wall coverage of the protests and videos showing police violence, other cable networks are running marathons of police dramas. During the TV season, viewers are getting new episodes of NCIS, SVU, Blue Bloods and Chicago PD, while past shows like the original Law & Order are still aired in repeats.
"Change will start taking place on TV shows individually. There will be lip service paid," Leight said Friday. He said he has also made changes to the SVU writers' room, making a "conscious effort" to add "new voices, fresh voices, different voices." Those new voices include people of color and others with experience in writing about New York City crime. The producers have "tried really hard in the last year to show how class and race affect the outcomes of justice in society," although Leight admitted this was not enough. "This has to be a moment where people make themselves uncomfortable, where people in power have to make themselves uncomfortable," he said, notes Entertainment Tonight.
Leight said they cannot always make every episode about a bad police officer, but they try to show that not every officer is perfect, even including Mariska Hargitay's Olivia Benson. "Olivia makes mistakes...but she’s empathic, which is I think what separates the cops on our television show from a lot of what we're seeing these days on our live streams," he explained. He is "uncomfortable" by other shows that glorify corrupt police officers.
SVU production was put on hold before the true Season 21 finale could be filmed due to the coronavirus pandemic. When cameras roll again, Leight said they will be working on an episode that touches on the outbreak. "We’re going to reflect New York in the pandemic," Leight said, adding that they will focus on a case involving sexual assault "during the height of the coronavirus outbreak." The new season is also expected to feature the return of Christopher Meloni's Elliott Stabler.