Following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis, Minnesota, police officers and subsequent protests against systemic racism in America and ongoing police brutality, there’s also been a growing discussion about how cops are portrayed on TV. Law & Order: Special Victims Unit showrunner Warren Leight recently addressed some of those issues, saying that the long-running NBC drama will tackle what’s happening now but also look at how it’s showcasing law enforcement and the criminal justice system moving forward.
While SVU, which has followed Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and her squad solving sex crimes in New York City for 21 seasons, has no shortage of episodes ripped from the headlines, Leight told The Hollywood Reporter podcast TV’s Top 5 that Floyd’s death “has to come up and it will,” explaining that they’ll tackle related issues from all sides.
“There are ways, we will find our way in to tell the story. 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,” he says of the squad facing an understandably untrustworthy public when it comes to day-to-day cases.
In the wake of the protests, Vulture published an article, “Cops Are Always the Main Characters,” which exposed TV’s longtime “police’s-eye perspective that helps shape the way viewers see the world, prioritizing the victories and struggles of police over communities being policed.” This has led to a much-needed conversation about how these portrayals shape the public consciousness.
“Change will start taking place on TV shows individually. There will be lip service paid,” Leight said, noting that he’s been making changes to the SVU writers' room in “a conscious effort to bring in new voices, fresh voices, different voices.”
In addition to bringing on new voices, including people of color and those who have extensive history covering and writing about crime in New York City, Leight said that they’ve “tried really hard in the last year to show how class and race affect the outcomes of justice in society, but I'm beginning to suspect ‘really hard’ wasn't enough. This has to be a moment where people make themselves uncomfortable, where people in power have to make themselves uncomfortable.”
When it comes to how cops are seen on SVU, Leight said that he “can’t make every episode about a bad cop” but he does make sure the show lives in the gray area of what is right and wrong. “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 livestreams,” he said, pointing out that the real problem is shows that glorify crooked or dirty cops. “I’ve been made uncomfortable by a number of shows that glorify the use of violence in interrogation or the use of threat.”
When the series returns for season 22, it will also tackle the coronavirus outbreak, which has led to reports of an increase in domestic abuse around the city. “We’re going to reflect New York in the pandemic,” Leight said. “What happens to someone who is sexually assaulted during the height of the coronavirus outbreak.”
The new season will also feature the return of Elliot Stabler (Chris Meloni), who will lead a new Law & Order spinoff. While still early in production, the new series made headlines after creator Dick Wolf fired a writer for controversial comments about the protests in Los Angeles.
“I will not tolerate this conduct, especially during our hour of national grief. I am terminating Craig Gore immediately,” Wolf said in a statement.