After a couple of decades of centering his TV empire on New York, the home of "Law & Order" and most of its spinoffs, the veteran producer Dick Wolf has suddenly become a man of the Midwest.
His new pair of shows — not an empire yet, but already at least a duchy — is set and filmed in Chicago, a part of Wolf's life the 67-year-old calls "the beginning of a very satisfying third act."
"Chicago Fire," Wolf's action- and emotion-packed look at a city firefighting squadron, is, in its second year, one of the few bright spots in a largely lustre-free NBC lineup.
That led to the spinoff "Chicago PD," premiering Wednesday and starring Jason Beghe as the head of a police intelligence unit, a character Wolf says is "good cop and bad cop all rolled into one."
And there are rumors in the Chicago production community that a third offering may be in the works, a medical series that would cement the notion of Chicago as the new Wolf franchise.
Wolf was cagy about those rumors. "Talk to me in the spring," he said. "It's sort of like talking to the president of the United States on the use of force: We reserve all of our options, but as of now the focus is on making 'Chicago PD' as successful as 'Chicago Fire.' … You have no idea how much I want 'CPD' to succeed."
But he sounded, at the same time, like a man who wouldn't mind having a third Chicago series running:
"The wonderful thing about Chicago is that it represents, sort of shamelessly, the best of American values and ideals and yet at the same time it's a very interesting urban petri dish in which there are lots of bad things that can happen on cop shows," he said.
"When we had multiple 'Law & Orders' on I always liked utilizing the other casts, but it was very hard to do crossover stories because they were all cop shows. The fact that we've got a series of first responder shows where those characters can interact seamlessly was kind of catnip."
For all his successes, the producer has known plenty of failures, too, including, he reminded us, his only previous show set in this city: a short-lived, little-remembered medical series that predated the Chicago-set "ER" (which would, of course, become a runaway success).
"The Human Factor," from 1992, "was about residents in a Chicago medical center, and Eriq La Salle was in it and actually wore his 'Human Factor' scrubs to his 'ER' audition," said Wolf. "There's a good piece of trivia."
So he is, as a rule, cautious about predicting success for a show or displaying an abundance of optimism related to the television business. That's why it was a little surprising to hear Wolf say this about Beghe's morally ambiguous character, Sgt. Hank Voight:
"My firm belief is that every couple of years somebody emerges as the most interesting new character of that season, whether it was Dennis Franz in 'NYPD Blue,' (James) Gandolfini in 'The Sopranos,' Claire Danes in 'Homeland,' Jon Hamm in 'Mad Men.' I think this year the most interesting new character is Jason Beghe."
That determination will ultimately be up to viewers, of course. And astute readers will note that only one of those shows is a product of the network system Wolf has worked in — "NYPD Blue," which dates back to 1993. But Wolf makes the case for the network drama series, endangered though it may be.
"The number of big-studio pictures has dropped precipitiously over the last 10 years and the number of big network dramas has also dropped in terms of both how many are on the air and how many are developed each season," said Wolf.
"We may be an anachronism. I'm not sure. But it sure is fun to be able to do televisions still on the scale that we do it. The cable model is 10 episodes a year, and there isn't much action and there isn't much movement and a lot of the shows are very internal. But you look at both 'Fire' and 'PD,' these are big action shows as well as being, hopefully, very satisfying emotionally and character-driven shows. I have no regrets about anything in either of these shows. They're really good television."
Wolf praises the cooperation he has received from the mayor's office and Chicago Fire Department: Extras are often off-duty firefighters whose expertise makes scenes more realistic. "We never got, frankly, the level of in-depth help in New York that we've gotten in Chicago in the last two years," he said.
While the two series shoot here, around the city and on adjacent stages at the Southwest Side Cinespace venue, the writing and post-production happen in Los Angeles, where Wolf has teams he is comfortable with. Still, the producer estimated he was in the city close to 30 days altogether last year.
And with "Chicago PD" he makes a nod to the very early days of his career, the first act, when he was shifting from advertising to being a television writer.
For exteriors, the series uses the old Maxwell Street Police Station, the same one used for "Hill Street Blues," the hugely influential series on which Wolf was a writer.
"Chicago PD" is not "Hill Street": That ground, presenting its police officers as flawed, fully realized human beings, has already been broken. But "PD" will be a different, tougher-minded show than "Chicago Fire," Wolf said, and not only because Matt Olmstead, with an "NYPD Blue" pedigree, is one of the creators and executive producers.
"I think it's a grittier show," Wolf said. "Look, there is a saying in Chicago, among firemen: 'When cops show up, people run. When we show up, they go, "Over here."' And, you know, the intelligence unit is one of the toughest units on the Chicago P.D. So by the very nature of what they do, their mandate is not to help people in burning buildings. It's to find out who set the fire."
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