The 11th season of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" could have been remarkably different if the contract negotiations with lead actors Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay had not been resolved before the new season began to lense. Thankfully, Meloni's Stabler and Hargitay's Benson are back in the "SVU" season premiere tonight on NBC and ready to fight crime in New York City. For some insight into the new season, executive producer Neal Baer talked with our Jim Halterman about whether he had a back up plan if the actors hadn't returned, how the series approaches using big name guest stars and who viewers can expect to see mix it up this year with the SVU crew.
Jim Halterman: The contracts of Chris Meloni and Mariska Hargitay are now squared away but did you have a back-up plan in the event either or both of them did not return to the show?
Neal Baer: In the last episode of last season, I wrote a line "What a way to end." [Laughs.] I was pretty hopeful that they would return but I didn't really have an alternate plan.
JH: What do you think about Jay Leno in the 10 o'clock hour and the fact that "Law & Order: SVU" is leading into it on Wednesday nights?
NB: I think we're a good lead in for anyone and whether we're on 10 o'clock on Saturday nights or when we're on USA or 3 in the afternoon. I think it's the kind of show that's just a great show to catch whenever it's on. Certainly, I think more people watch TV at 9 o'clock than 10 o'clock. It used to be when I was doing "ER," we'd get a 45 share, way beyond "American Idol." Everybody says "American Idol" is such a huge hit but it's not compared to "ER" in the early years by far. That audience has really dwindled for a lot of reasons like people are doing more social networking and internetting and things like TiVoing, watching the news or whatever in a way that people didn't when "ER" was on in the '90s. I think it's interesting to come on at 9 o'clock. I believe the show started at 9 o'clock on Mondays when it first premiered in 1999 and I think 9 o'clock is going to be a bigger audience.
JH: "Criminal Minds" is your competition. Does that concern you as far as a similar audience being splintered between the two series?
NB: No, I think they are very different shows. They are both considered procedurals but they're very different in the way they approach the subject matter and the characters and the characters' lives. It's apples and oranges, I think. We were on against "Without A Trace" and that was a procedural show, too, but it doesn't seem to hurt us.
JH: Your guest stars often are nominated and go on to win Emmys for their performances on the show. Ellen Burstyn just won hers for guesting...
NB: We've won in the last five years in an actor category. Amanda Plummer guest starred, Mariska, Leslie Caron, Cynthia Nixon and then Ellen Burstyn.
JH: When you bring in a guest star, do you come up with a story first and then find a guest star or vice versa?
NB: Both. For Carol Burnett, we came up with a story to go to her with because we wanted to work with her. Usually what we do is we pick an actor we want to work with and then develop a story like what we did with Robin Williams or Cynthia Nixon or Ellen. For a big star, typically we go to them first and pitch it to them so we know we have them on board as opposed to where we write it and then we cast it. We have Rosie Perez coming in episode five and we really wrote it for Rosie because we've been wanting her to do the show for a number of years. She knew we were writing this episode for her.
JH: And Christine Lahti is coming on for the first four episodes. How did that come about and what is her role going to be?
NB: We pursued Christine. I know Christine's husband Tommy Schlamme because Tommy directed several of my "ER" episodes before he went on to "The West Wing." I always admired Christine's work from "Swing Shift" to "Running On Empty" so we knew Stephanie March wasn't coming back until episode five because she had commitments to do other things so we thought about bringing on an established Executive Assistant District Attorney who really puts Benson and Stabler through their paces. I had actually seen a pilot for USA that had Christine in it and it didn't get picked up so I thought "Well, her loss is our gain." She's spectacular in it.
JH: The audience craves the personal tidbits that you give us about all the regular cast members. Any big personal arcs coming up for the characters?
NB: In this season, you're going to see Mariska deal with some issues that we haven't brought them up in years. It's going to hit her hard in Episode 4. The episode is called "Hammered." People are "hammered" in many ways in that episode.
JH: The show also pulls so much from real life and the new headlines. Has there been anything that was just too horrific that you didn't go near it?
NB: Not really. We've done some pretty intense shows but we try not to show the graphic violence and more of the psychological elements so that's what makes our show very different from, say, "Criminal Minds," which is more visually graphic than our show. For our particular subject matter, just the nature of it we'll try to pull back on the gore and the blood and all that. But I don't think we've ever pulled back from anything.
JH: After so many years on the show, how do you personally keep yourself creatively invested in the show and the stories you're telling?
NB: I'm always interested in science and social policy and things like that. I have a medical background as a pediatrician and then when I was a graduate student in sociology I did a lot of work in social policy at Harvard when I was a masters student there so I'm interested in social policy issues and you'll see a lot of policy issues springing up on the show. I think parents have a social obligation to immunize their children to protect children other than their own and we did that show last year with Hilary Duff and Gail O'Grady. This year, it's solitary confinement torture. There's a lot of research that suggests that putting someone in a cell in solitary confinement is so detrimental to their mental health that it's a form of torture so we explore that with Oscar nominated actor Stephen Rea from "The Crying Game." We always try to get actors you haven't seen typically on TV. You haven't seen Carol Burnett in awhile, you don't see Ellen Burstyn very much or Stephen Rea you don't see on TV and Robin Williams you don't see on TV so we try to really surprise the audience with stars who make you go "Wow! That's kind of cool!" so that's something else we do. We have a full-time researcher who pulls stories all the time for us to read. We have huge binders full of stories so we're just looking at all the corners of social policy and human behavior to find our stories. Every year, we think "Are going to find interesting, provocative stories this year?" and we're on episode nine so....
JH: Is there any talent you've always wanted to get that you haven't been able to get?
NB: Obviously, there are the big ones that you know won't do TV but we're pretty good at getting people. This season, the first episode is Wentworth Miller, the second episode is Eric McCormack and not in a comedic role, the third is Stephen Rea, fourth is Scott Foley, fifth is Rosie Perez, sixth is John Larroquette so we have really great people coming up. Then the seventh episode is when Vincent Spano comes back as an FBI agent who has some chemistry with Benson.
"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" airs every Wednesday night on NBC at 9:00/8:00c.