What’s New at ‘SVU’? The Cast Talks Shaking Things Up in Season 21

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit - Season 21

“Season 21 is a year of transition for everybody on the show,” says Law & Order: SVU executive producer Warren Leight.

Seems inevitable considering the sex-crimes procedural from prolific producer Dick Wolf has become [trumpet fanfare] the longest-running live-action primetime show in TV history! But Leight’s declaration is also an intent that has boosted the drama’s popularity.

Mariska Hargitay anchors SVU — beyond that, all bets are off. The timeless star says new faces “[bring] new dynamics, and that’s part of what makes the show compelling.”

We spoke to the cast about this momentous season’s changes.

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Promoted: Capt. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay)

If you thought Olivia carried a lot on her capable shoulders before, you can double the weight this year. Now that she’s Captain Benson, says Leight, “Her job is much more administrative, she’s got a new boss whom she doesn’t know anything about, Carisi’s gone, Rollins is stressed, and there’s a newcomer who’s a loose cannon. Not to mention how understaffed her unit is.” Did we say double the weight? How about quadruple?

Considering the circumstances, Benson, whom Hargitay has played since SVU‘s 1999 debut, is happy to have detective in training Kat Azar Tamin in the squad room, but she’s sorely missing Carisi since he decamped for the DA’s office. Hargitay calls the move “bittersweet” for her character: “She has a shorthand and a level of trust with him that will be both an asset and a challenge with his new position.”

(Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

Multitasking is now the mandate for Benson, who can be single-minded in her quest for justice. “Her scope of responsibility has broadened beyond being an advocate for survivors, and she has to think about the bigger picture,” Hargitay notes.

Suddenly her job description encompasses dealing with the press, protecting the SVU and NYPD image, maneuvering through unfamiliar political terrain, and other tasks that could force some hard compromises. “The beauty of the character is that she operates from her principles, and those principles get tested as Olivia climbs in rank,” says Hargitay. “She knows she needs to be more directly involved with her bosses at 1PP [1 Police Plaza, or HQ].”

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These investigations stayed with us long after the episode ended.

First in line: smart but unpredictable new deputy chief Christian Garland, who’s rapidly instituting some cutting-edge investigative techniques. Not to fear, though. “Olivia is playing the game better,” Hargitay says proudly. In one upcoming face-off, “she calls out Garland for trying to use flattery to get her to do something.”

Indeed, their different styles of policing will require careful collaboration. We’ll put our trust in the captain.

Transferred: ADA Sonny Carisi (Peter Scanavino)

(Barbara Nitke/NBC)

Passing the bar finally paid off for Carisi, and not just because, as Scanavino quips, “he’s wearing nicer suits.”

Still, in his new role as an NYC assistant district attorney, the longtime SVU cop is finding the transition tricky. Ex-partner and good friend Amanda Rollins, smarting from his abrupt exit, is giving him grief over his decisions on her cases, and boss Vanessa Hadid (Zuleikha Robinson) is a real “political beast,” Scanavino notes — a poor fit for a guy who doesn’t play games.

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Plus, someone got a promotion in the Season 21 premiere.

Carisi’s gung ho police mentality may be a handicap too: “He has to figure out how to put that passion into his more dispassionate legal role and make it his greatest asset.”

Regrouping: Sgt. “Fin” Tutuola (Ice T) & Det. Amanda Rollins (Kelli Giddish)

(Virginia Sherwood/NBC; Barbara Nitke/NBC)

Benson’s bump could open up a lieutenant position, but Fin is just fine with his current rank. After all, Ice T says, her hefty workload means the sergeant “gets to run the room a little more, telling Rollins and the newbie what to do.”

The self-described “old-school cop” particularly enjoys mentoring Tamin. “She’s an action chick but not reckless,” the actor says. “It’s an interesting dynamic, as it was when Fin came on [from narcotics] to work with the veteran Munch [Richard Belzer] years ago.”

The ADA switch from Peter Stone (departed Philip Winchester) hasn’t fazed him: “Carisi’s still on our side.”

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Rollins, though, feels partner Carisi “left her in the lurch. Their friendship has to change because what they need from each other is changing,” Giddish notes.

And now that Rollins is raising two daughters alone, “finding retribution for sexual assault victims is even more personal for her. She has no time, energy or space for anything but her family and her job.” As a result, she looks to fellow single mom Benson for support. “That will pop up,” Giddish says. “They have so much in common.”

Hired: Deputy Chief Christian Garland (Demore Barnes) & Officer Kat Azar Tamin (Jamie Gray Hyder)

(Virginia Sherwood/NBC: Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

A far cry from easygoing predecessor William Dodds (Peter Gallagher), Deputy Chief Garland is a “highly analytical, strategic Ivy League grad. He’s empathetic but can switch to hard-nosed when the situation requires it,” says Barnes (The Flash) of the recurring character. “Viewers should enjoy discovering why, despite having the world as his oyster, he chose to be a cop.”

The unorthodox new brass is also a shaker-upper, which drives Benson and her team crazy at first. Will she become his ally? “Time will tell.”

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There were a few major changes in the Season 21 premiere.

Like Garland, Tamin, a transfer from vice, is a concerned NYC native. “Kat is motivated by social justice and attached to her community,” says cast addition Hyder (True Blood). In the October 31 episode, when a girl is assaulted in a public-housing stairwell, “Kat identifies 100 percent. She was raised in the projects and knows there’s not a high priority on crimes in low-income areas.” Hyder relates to go-getter Kat on another level too: “She has to fit in with a new group of people just like I do!”

Law & Order: SVU, Thursdays, 10/9c, NBC

This is a version of TV Guide Magazine’s latest cover story. For more, pick up the issue, on newsstands Thursday, October 24.