|Dick Wolf's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" returns to the lineup Wednesday night at 10 with a couple of new cast members and a refocused mission, said the cast and executive producer Warren Leight on Thursday.|
"This year, season 13 of 'SVU,' is a bit of a rebirth," Leight said at a gathering with reporters on the show's Chelsea Piers soundstage.
That rebirth comes after the departure of Christopher Meloni, who played Detective Elliot Stabler - a move that will be part of the show - and the arrival of two new detectives, played by Kelli Giddish and Danny Pino.
"How does it affect the squad? The season ended in a bloodbath in the squad room, so there are a lot of changes already in place. They're getting over a lot of loss," said Leight.
While Giddish and Pino give the cast a different feel (Stephanie March is back as an assistant district attorney), there are other changes, too.
Leight, who worked on "L&O: Criminal Intent," said "SVU" now will incorporate some of the psychological elements of "Criminal Intent" and legal aspects of the original "Law & Order." "L&O: SVU" is the last of the franchise still on the air.
The precinct setup has changed a bit, too. There will be more scenes of detectives in the squad room and other minor changes that indicate a precinct rebuilding after a loss.
Moreover, all but one of the writers are now in New York, rather than Los Angeles, because, Leight said, "I feel the show benefits from the city."
As part of that process, the cast and writers have talked to real detectives and other experts to get a renewed sense of what goes on when there's a significant change in a station house.
Giddish, last seen on NBC's "The Chase," said joining the show was like "going into a family that's been together for 12 years."
"It's a really nice flame to carry," she added.
Mariska Hargitay would not say whether this is her last season, but said she has a "completely open mind" about the future. She will function as a lone wolf this year as Detective Olivia Benson, according to Leight.
"Everything is new, that's what is so exciting," said Hargitay. "For me personally, it's a completely different Olivia, coming from a completely different place. With Elliot's departure, Olivia has been turned upside down."
Also back this season are Richard Belzer as Detective John Munch and Dann Florek as Captain Don Cragen, a role he started in 1990 on the original "L&O."
"We don't ignore the loss," Belzer said of Meloni, who decided to leave at the end of last season. "It was a huge loss emotionally, and as an actor, it's a challenge."
The loss of Meloni's Stabler frees the show from having to manufacture personal issues for its characters - they already have the simmering emotions of loss.
Ice-T, who plays Detective Odafin (Fin) Tutuola, said he'd like to see the new energy propel "SVU" to a record for longest-running prime-time drama. "L&O" tied "Gunsmoke" for that honor, with 20 years.
"We're a team," said Ice-T, noting how rare it is for a show to be on 13 years. "I want to do another 10 years. I want to keep it going. I've got new teammates, we've got to keep winning. I think this is the new blood, the new boost ... so maybe we'll get the record, I think we can do 20 or 22, why the hell not?"