Why Law and Order: SVU Changed Things Up for Benson and Carisi in Season 21

Showrunner Warren Leight broke down what the new roles mean for the long-running drama

By Chris Harnick Sep 27, 2019 3:00 AMTags
Watch: Peter Scanavino Talks "Law & Order: SVU" Character's New Job

Law & Order: SVU started its history-making season 21 with some big changes. Warning, spoilers follow for the Thursday, Sept. 26 episode titled "I'm Going to Make You a Star."

Yep, returning series showrunner Warren Leight wasn't kidding when he promised big changes were coming to the longest-running drama on TV. Detective Dominick "Sonny" Carisi? No longer a detective. Viewers met ADA Carisi (Peter Scanavino) in the season premiere. Lt. Olivia Benson? No longer a lieutenant. She's Captain Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) now.

Mariska Hargitay's Law and Order: SVU Hair Through the Years

So, why all the big changes? "Thematically, it's a year about passages and changes. I don't think nobody at the start of the season will be in the same place at the end of the season," Leight told us ahead of the premiere. "People's titles will change, people's roles in the squad room will change, people's domestic life—turning 21 is a major passage in life, so it should be for the show as well. With any luck, the special victims unit will still be up and running by the end of the season, but people will go through a lot of personal and professional changes, I think."

Get the inside scoop on the big changes below.


Captain Benson
Leight said the promotion for Benson came at a cost. Dodds was removed from his position, but made it so Benson was taken care of in his absence. "So, it's a promotion for her, but with an emotional cost as well, because I just think that's how things work. But she's the captain now," Leight said.

Viewers can expect to see Benson and the new bureau chief come into conflict early this season. "She and Dodds were pretty cozy, but her office had like 185 pictures of Noah, she's the captain now and different people will be visiting her office now, so she's going to have to take out 183 of those pictures of Noah," Leight teased. "It's always tricky when you have a new boss, so we'll be seeing a few new bosses in the season, not just for her, but over in the district attorney's office, we'll get some turnover there."

Some fans have been critical over Benson's lack of love life on the series, equating a relationship to happiness. But being in a relationship isn't the be-all and end-all for people.


ADA Carisi
Leight said Carisi put himself through law school while working as a detective, so why wouldn't he pursue a law career? "He's smart, he's got a legal mind. I think he's feeling a little, ‘Is this all there is? Is this it?'…I think he thought by now he'd be married, I think he thought he was a different path than he ended up on. He got a little stuck," Leight said.

With ADA Stone (Philip Winchester) out, Leight said Carisi seized the opportunity presented to him. "It's kind of like, if I don't do it now, I'm never going to do it. I think he does it with regret… A cop always has his gun and now he doesn't. That will come back, probably to haunt him, at some point this season," Leight teased.

Expect Carisi's exit to open up the squad room to new blood. Leight explained the real NYPD's special victims unit tends to get white shields, police officers who want to be detectives but aren't trained yet, so NBC's SVU may introduce some rotating new faces in that respect.

"What does it do when you take an experienced detective out of a small unit? It kind of throws everybody off a little bit. What does it do for Carisi? It gives him a little challenge. But he's not ready at the start of the season to go in there and go all Barba on people, he's got to earn his shot to get a big case. We put him through the ropes certainly the first eight or nine episodes of the season. He's doing grunt work in the DA's office under a boss who's not overly empathic," Leight previewed.

Click play on the video above to hear from Scanavino about his character's new gig.

Law & Order: SVU airs Thursdays, 10 p.m. on NBC.

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