LOS ANGELES -- NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" will be paying tribute to its ripped-from-the-headlines heritage this season, the drama's executive producer said.
The show returns for its 15th year at 8 p.m. Wednesday, picking up on last season's cliffhanger finale that had New York City police Detective Olivia Benson (series star Mariska Hargitay) held at gunpoint by a rapist.
It will be followed by a second new episode at 9 p.m. Wednesday, this one with a story line about kidnapped girls that echoes the Ariel Castro case in Cleveland.
In upcoming episodes, a politician will run into trouble over "sexting," while another plot will focus on a celebrity chef and the shooting of a young African-American man -- an apparent mash-up of Paula Deen's racial-slur woes and the Trayvon Martin case.
"We use headlines as a jumping off point, but we utilize them as a way to explore the issues that underline these stories," producer Warren Leight said.
While fiction, the episode about the chef demonstrates "how we all profile people one way or the other when we pass them on the street," he said.
The new season represents "a significant reboot" of the crime drama, said creator Dick Wolf, adding that Hargitay and the show have never been better.
"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" is the sole remaining first-run U.S. series in Wolf's "Law & Order" franchise.