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‘Law & Order’ Mastermind Dick Wolf on That Trump Episode and Sexual Assault

The man behind the ‘Law & Order’ empire—as well as four Chicago series—on the controversial Trump-inspired episode, his Zayn Malik NBC series, and much more.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is anything but subtle. Over the years, we’ve been treated to an embarrassment of outrageous, ripped-from-the-headlines riches: a Trayvon Martin/Paula Deen crossover wherein a racist southern cooking show host, played by Cybill Shepherd, guns down a black teenager in a hoodie outside of her posh Upper East Side brownstone; a James Franco/Shia LaBeouf-inspired gem about an eccentric, sitar-playing actor who slides into a teenage girl’s DMs only to become the prime suspect when she’s abducted and raped (he proclaims his innocence via a performance art piece called #Accused, donning a paper bag over his head); and, lest we forget, the infamous Hilary Duff-as-Casey Anthony stunner.

But even by the show’s lofty standards, Season 18 of the long-running crime procedural has been particularly batty. The season premiere, “Terrorized,” was an elaborate take on the 2015 San Bernardino attack and subsequent iPhone encryption dispute between Apple and the FBI, while its follow-up, “Making a Rapist,” featured not only a cameo by Vice President Joe Biden, but also a twist on the Steven Avery case from Making a Murderer. All these based on a true story riffs, however, pale in comparison to the planned Donald Trump episode.

“It is possible we may try to explore a story involving some sort of brash demagogue with political ambitions,” SVU showrunner Rick Eid revealed to THR in September. And sure enough, reports began circulating soon after that Lt. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) and her crew of detectives would be setting their sights on a pussy-grabbing Donald Trump clone—that is, a politician (Gary Cole) with his eye on the White House whose campaign completely derails when multiple women come forward accusing him of sexual assault. The episode, titled “Unstoppable,” was set to air on Oct. 26, but subsequently had its date moved several times. It will now air Nov. 16, over a week after Election Day.

Speaking to SVU creator Dick Wolf in Chicago, where the TV procedural wizard unveiled his fourth series in his budding Chicago empire, Chicago Justice, he claimed that “Unstoppable” was not inspired by Trump—albeit with a wink and a smile.

SVU is fiction,” he told me, flashing a smile. “Law & Order is fiction. It’s a show right now that’s had four different airdates! We’ve never had that before. Never.”

After that, his publicist shut down any more talk on the episode. Though a source close to SVU informed The Daily Beast that the show was indeed “part-inspired” by candidate Trump, and that the controversial episode was moved so as to not interfere in the upcoming presidential election on Nov. 8. If you recall, Trump has a chummy relationship with his former network NBC, which airs SVU and hosted his Emmy-losing reality competition series The Apprentice and its spin-off, Celebrity Apprentice. Though the peacock cut business ties with Trump following his anti-Mexican presidential announcement speech, it has—the SNL debates notwithstanding—maintained a cozy relationship with its departed ex-star during his Oval Office run, allowing him to host an episode of Saturday Night Live, treating him to numerous softball segments on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, and affording him preferential treatment during its notorious Matt Lauer-hosted Commander-in-Chief Forum.

Later during our chat, Wolf concedes that as a New Yorker, he’s known Trump for years—but never tried to get him to cameo on any of his Law & Order programs, or to do a spin on Trump.

“Why would I try to get Donald on? I’ve known him for decades, but we never made it,” said Wolf. “Although nobody else has. We’ve only had a few guest appearances by athletes or politicians.”

One big guest appearance came courtesy of Vice President Joe Biden, who delivered a speech on the Sept. 28 episode of SVU on backlogged rape kits. According to Wolf, Biden, who’s also cameoed on Parks and Recreation, was a total pro.

“The landmark moment was he wasn’t bad!” said a chuckling Wolf. “We’ve had a lot of people on the show and some people are comfortable and look seamless, and others aren’t. He was seamless. That was a very good day.”

As for his Chicago slate of shows, which includes Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., Chicago Med, and next years Carl Weathers-starrer Chicago Justice, Wolf said that he was drawn to the Windy City because it seemed grittier than New York or Los Angeles.

“I didn’t want to set it on the coasts, because it’s about first responders. It’s better to have it in the heart of America because they can say things they’d never say on Rescue Me,” he said. “It’s a lot less cynical than shows that, by their very nature, are cynical because of where they are. People have different values and this is the heart of America where people’s hearts are on their sleeve.”

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Another project Wolf is very excited about is Boys, a scripted drama series set up at NBC about the highs and lows of life in an uber-popular boy band. It’s based in part on the experiences of former One Direction member Zayn Malik, who’s closely involved with the show’s production.

“You’ve got Zayn Malik who’s one of the top pop stars. He’s not starring in it, but he’s basically an executive producer/consultant giving the writers insights into how that world works,” said Wolf. “And it should work. The hope is that it will be the next Glee. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but it’s designed to fill that niche. All the musical shows now are competition shows and not scripted.”

The TV titan has won two Emmys and presided over two of the longest-running script shows in the history of television: Law & Order (20 seasons) and Law & Order: SVU (18 seasons and counting). One of his greatest accomplishments, he confessed, is how SVU has elevated the conversation surrounding sexual assault, and helped convince victims to report.

“We’re not taking all the credit for it, but what has happened is—and this happened in the earliest years of the show—it demystified sex crimes and made it very clear that nothing was going to get better unless people reported them,” said Wolf. “There was a much higher state of shame in this country in 1999 when it comes to talking about sex crimes, or people that have been attacked. It wasn’t part of the conversation at any level of society, let alone the intelligentsia. Law & Order had started the basic idea that everything is better if all sides of an issue are discussed, and as the dialogue broadened, Mariska [Hargitay] has become an icon for women. She is just fantastic.”

With that, I attempted to steer the conversation back to the already-infamous Trump episode, asking Wolf whether it’s become more difficult to create his ripped-from-the-headlines plots on SVU given how batshit crazy the news has been of late.

Law & Order is fiction, but a lot of things are stranger than fiction,” he offered. “Crime is a constantly renewable resource. It will never stop.”