It was a celebratory Monday for the cast, crew and fans of Law & Order: SVU when the long-running procedural was renewed for season 18.
However, showrunner Warren Leight admits he was at least partly bracing for a very different outcome.
"We've always been aware that our numbers are lower than they could be if we were on Tuesday at 10 or Wednesday at 10 or Thursday at 10 and that the competition is very tough in that 9 o'clock slot," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Sometimes there's been this unspoken fear that we're being asked to build our own coffin."
Leight specifically points to NBC's Chicago trilogy also exec produced by Law & Order mastermind Dick Wolf and which has since taken over the 10 o'clock timeslots on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Over the years, SVU has been used as a lead-in for first Chicago Fire during the 2012-2013 season, and then Chicago P.D. beginning in 2014. "There was a period where some of us might have felt underappreciated, but I think because of the fans holding onto this show, that period has passed," Leight says. "This is not a booster rocket that falls back to the Earth once the Chicago franchise is launched. I think we've proven that."
But just incase that wasn't the case, Leight admits he and the writers had begun plotting a possible series finale should season 17 have been the last. "If we weren't coming back, there were a couple things I was absolutely going to do," he says of bringing back former series regulars like Richard Belzer (Munch), Danny Pino (Amaro) and, most notably, Christopher Meloni (Stabler). "We had been talking [about], had this been the last episode, we would have tried him to bring him back."
Meloni famously starred on the first 12 seasons as Benson's longtime partner (and possible love interest?) Stabler. However, he left suddenly after the season finale had already been filmed, leaving writers to write him out in the season 13 premiere, when Cragen (Dann Florek) told Benson her partner had abruptly resigned from the force.
"In hindsight, NBC, Dick, Universal and Chris all know they could have handled that better," Leight says. "But I think Chris, over time from what I hear, began to realize that the fans were owed a little more."
Meloni's sudden exit coincided with Leight's arrival as the new drama's new showrunner. He was subsequently tasked with not only bringing in two new leads to replace Meloni (Pino and Kelli Giddish) but also forging an entirely new creative direction for the series that has since seen Benson in multiple romantic relationships and as an adopted mother.
"None of the people in the room thought for a second, 'How will the fans experience this?'" Leight says of Meloni's surprise curtain call. "It was a negotiation handled without much empathy on any of the participant's parts and I think they all sort of know that now. And there wasn't much empathy for the fans either. I think everyone probably learned, but you can't roll the clock back."
In the years since, Meloni has gone to great lengths to distance himself from his breakthrough dramatic role, leaning towards comedies like the Wet Hot American Summer prequel series, Veep and the short-lived Surviving Jack. But Leight sounds confident a Stabler-Benson reunion might have been, and still might be, possible.
"I think if Mariska were to have called him, he would have taken the call," he says. "That can be for another day; hopefully a long way off."
Leight is also bullish when asked about the future of the series - and specifically whether SVU can make it to 21 seasons and become the longest-running primetime series in history. "I think if anyone deserves it, it's Mariska," he says. "But if she were to decide 18 is enough, she deserves that too. Her character has been through a lot."
No matter what, it won't be Leight penning Benson's farewell. After five seasons in charge, the showrunner is leaving at the end of season 17 for an overall deal at Sony Television. "It's bittersweet because it's a funny feeling to realize, 'Yes, of course it goes on without you. If you've done your job well, it should go on without you,'" Leight says. "But I'll miss our team here a lot."
Law & Order: SVU airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.