How Dick Wolf's Chicago Franchise Is Raising the Bar (and the Heat) on TV
Taylor Kinney, Jesse Spencer
Something revolutionary is happening on the massive stages of Cinespace Film Studios, home to Dick Wolf’s first-responder hits Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D. and Chicago Med. The legendary creator of the seminal Law & Order franchise is bent on turning these three shows—and soon a probable fourth spinoff, potentially titled Chicago Law—into one sprawling drama.
“This is the Chicago version of Dickens’s London,” Wolf says, “where any character from any of his books could show up in another. Nothing quite like it has ever been done on television.” Akin to those intertwining circles of 19th-century England, Wolf’s Windy City franchise is about “a group of people who serve the public in one city and whose lives intersect on a daily basis,” he says.
It’s an intersection that goes well beyond the occasional “very special” crossover. Here, firefighters and cops work together on arson cases, and firehouse paramedics rush patients to the Chicago Med emergency room. There are even two sets of siblings across the series—Gabby and Antonio Dawson of Fire and P.D. and Jay and Will Halstead of P.D. and Med. Not to mention crossover romances including the engaged Sgt. Trudy Platt (Amy Morton) and firefighter Mouch (Christian Stolte). To complete the merge, some episodes of all three shows end with the characters knocking back drinks together at Molly’s, their local pub. Wolf is so confident in his “One Chicago” concept that he’s petitioning the Screen Actors Guild to allow him to enter the casts of these shows as a single ensemble for the SAG Awards.
“What Dick is doing is so brilliant,” says Oliver Platt, who plays chief psychiatrist Daniel Charles on Chicago Med. “Shows have been spun off forever, but nobody ever thought to spin shows into one living community. That’s an interesting and challenging experiment for the actors because none of us are working on just a single drama.”
NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke was on board for this cross-pollination from the very beginning. “It was easy to sign off on this connection. Dick plants characters into shows and you fall in love with them. Then he creates a shared storytelling and a feeling of camaraderie. I think it’s really investing for viewers.”
But all this synergy “is not without sacrifices,” admits Wolf Films President Peter Jankowski. “The logistics are complex and the cast and crew have to work extra hard.” It will, of course, be worth the trouble when, as NBC and Wolf Films hope, more fans of one Chicago show start tuning in to the others. “Last year, research showed that only 35 percent of the audience watched both Fire and P.D.,” Wolf says. “This [shared storytelling] is a way to raise that ratio. We’re beginning to see the numbers.”
So far, the Chi-Town trilogy has delivered for the network, with Fire and P.D. often winning their timeslots and Med holding its own against CBS’s NCIS: New Orleans. “These are positive heartland shows,” Salke says. “People are leaning into them because they want to believe there are folks out there doing heroic things to lift up society and help others.”
At that rate, Wolf may have to ditch Dickens as a template and start thinking more along the lines of a Windy City-based Tolstoy novel. After all, they already share the same climate. And a revolution. Here is a look at life in Wolf country.
Despite an upcoming scene where one of their own will angrily leave Firehouse 51, the actors playing Chicago Fire’s heroes are currently in a playful mood. Lining up to enter the show’s locker room, Monica Raymund (Gabby Dawson) swats Jesse Spencer (Lt. Matt Casey, her on-screen fiancé) to get his attention and then joins Yuri Sardarov (Brian “Otis” Zvonecek) in a giggling gladiator-style salute to Karl Marx.
“It’s on-set stupid stuff,” explains Taylor Kinney (Lt. Kelly Severide) during a break. “After the holiday, everyone’s in good spirits.” The giddiness continues when his colleagues pass around an off-key YouTube tribute to the show’s main hunk, sung by a male admirer.
Of course, Kinney can’t help grinning from ear to ear when he talks about the show. On January 6, he won a People’s Choice Award for Favorite Dramatic TV Actor, and he has just returned to work after watching Lady Gaga, his fiancée, accept a Golden Globe for her American Horror Story role. “We have a picture together with our dogs and our awards,” Kinney says. “It’s pretty neat.”
Pretty neat could also sum up how he feels about Chicago Fire being the mother ship for Wolf’s ever-expanding franchise. “It’s an exciting journey to be a part of,” Kinney says. “Just getting to a second season has been great. And now we’re doing spinoffs! There’s a lot of ‘pinch me’ moments.” Enough that the in-demand actor plans to stay around for a while. “I’m well aware of how lucky I am. I couldn’t ask for a better job.”
For Kinney and his costars, these roles come with a certain responsibility. “We do our best to tell honest stories,” he notes. “It feels gratifying when I walk by a firehouse and the guys invite me in and give me a bite to eat. Not that they won’t bust balls if we get something wrong!”
His character, the hot and often hotheaded squad leader, is due some good karma after a run of bad luck this season. Chastened by his recent temporary bust in rank, Kinney says Severide “will walk the line for a while.” Whether he will settle down is another story. Severide still has undeniable chemistry with Med’s Nurse April (Yaya DaCosta), and then there’s a stunning new female firefighter named Stella (Miranda Rae Mayo), who joins the team in the February 16 episode.
As for Firehouse 51 lovebirds Dawson and Casey, a wedding is still on the back burner, but Dawson is pushing Casey to take a different kind of big step. After his attempt to raise money for a homeless shelter introduced him to his town’s political corruption, she’s urging him to run for city council. “She knows he’s the best man to fight for the people,” Raymund says. “Casey’s a reluctant sort of leader, but a promise of sex from Dawson is the tipping point,” Spencer says with a laugh.
If he should win, we could see a lot more of Casey on Chicago P.D. “It’s great that we have the trifecta of TV worlds,” Spencer says. Creating those worlds, however, comes at a unique price, especially in winter. “This is already a challenge,” says Wolf, “but when people’s words freeze coming out of their mouths—it’s a real challenge.”
Brian Luce, a Windy City cop for more than two decades and now a Chicago P.D. technical adviser, is on set watching a scene in which Intelligence Unit Chief Hank Voight (Jason Beghe) is laying out a plan to capture a deranged serial killer. “I try to make the show a true depiction not just of the physical part of police work but also how the job affects our hearts,” Luce says.
It’s working. “The cops here tell us they’re impressed at how true to life our scenes are,” says Jesse Lee Soffer (Det. Jay Halstead). “We even had a SWAT officer say, ‘You could kick in a door for me any day!’ That’s a really high compliment.” Adds Patrick John Flueger (Officer Adam Ruzek), “Luce is clearly our biggest asset.” But Luce gives all the credit to the actors. “This cast is the best,” he says. “They train constantly—shooting, doing ride-alongs, even listening to victims’ heart-wrenching stories.”
For local actor LaRoyce Hawkins (Officer Kevin Atwater), the attention to detail and (mostly) positive depiction of the police is personal. “This is my home, and I’m proud to represent the human being that is bred in this kind of world,” he says. “I thank Dick Wolf every day for giving me the chance to play a guy that people respect and can look up to when I go back to my community.”
Flueger, Soffer and Sophia Bush (Det. Erin Lindsay), already good pals from playing siblings on the unaired NBC pilot Hatfields and McCoys, say their tight-knit Chicago clan has expanded to include actors on Fire and Med. “It’s become a big family, which makes it lot of fun,” Soffer says. So much so that P.D. and Fire actors recently held a WhirlyBall tournament—a Chicago sport that’s a strange mix of lacrosse and basketball played in bumper cars. “We beat ’em,” Soffer says proudly. “It’s like winning the lottery,” gushes Bush, who throws regular viewing parties of the show at her house. “We do not have an a--hole among this group. That’s so out of the ordinary.”
Joining the group in the February 17 episode is Buffy alum Charisma Carpenter as the sexy owner of a medical marijuana clinic where Detective Halstead is moonlighting. Could this mean his on-again, off-again romance with Lindsay will go up in smoke? Bush is mum but says, “I appreciate that their relationship doesn’t take over their work. It’s not our main focus.” And just when her boss and foster dad, Sergeant Voight, had given them his blessing!
Voight would have been the last person you’d seek a blessing from when he first appeared in a recurring role on Fire as a crooked and dangerous cop. “When [executive producer] Michael Brandt said, ‘You know you’re playing a bad guy,’ I answered, ‘No, I’m not. There’s always more to someone than that,’” Beghe says. “We understand a lot more about Voight now and why he does what he does.” Turns out the actor was right—the rule-breaking bad cop was working undercover.
Beghe’s great-grandfather Charles S. Deneen would approve. He was the local state’s attorney and, later, an Illinois governor and U.S. senator who helped clean up corruption. Says the actor: “My parents would have gotten a hoot out of me coming back here and playing this role!”
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How does it feel to be the new kid on the Chicago block? “Like the world’s our oyster,” says Colin Donnell, who plays Chicago Med heartthrob Connor Rhodes, a rebellious rich kid turned trauma surgeon. “The guys on Fire— our patriarchs—are like the welcoming committee of Chicago. When I first appeared on their show, it was just a big warm hug. And when we stepped on the Med set, we had every tool that we could ever need for success.”
Even though the cast has only worked together for a few months, the mood on Med’s shiny new emergency department set is one of easy camaraderie, especially in moments that require mouthfuls of medical jargon while faking intricate procedures. “Did I do something stupid?” Donnell asks with humility after the director requests a do-over of one intricate exchange. Everyone laughs before they go again. “Unlike our advisers, one of whom is a trauma surgeon, we get another take,” Donnell notes a few minutes later. “This has taken my respect for the medical profession to entirely new levels.”
For S. Epatha Merkerson, Chicago Med has given her a second chance to be part of the Wolf family. She plays hospital administrator Sharon Goodwin, a role as authoritative and no-nonsense as the beloved Lt. Anita Van Buren she played on Law & Order for 17 seasons. “When my manager told me that Peter Jankowski called, I immediately said to tell him I’m ready to work! I was thinking about some kind of role on Fire or P.D. I had no idea they had Med planned, but it was a no-brainer to be part of this,” she says. “Chicago has everything New York has, plus back alleys so you don’t see the trash!”
Merkerson says she loves going to local jazz joints with the young actors—she lights up when recounting how they celebrated her birthday last fall—and she is particularly fond of working with Platt. “Goodwin and Charles are old friends,” she says with a laugh, “but no, she’s not one of his four ex-wives. So far we only know that Goodwin is married, but we’ll definitely know more about these characters’ personal lives than on Law & Order.”
Though Platt is the rare New York actor never to have appeared on Law & Order, his first TV starring role was on Wolf’s short-lived newspaper drama, Deadline. “I learned from that show that I love doing TV and that Dick has an extraordinary understanding of the network business,” the actor says. “When he called about this role, I was a bit skeptical about an ER having a resident psychiatrist. But when I did research, I found that a terrifying amount of patients who walk into emergency rooms have mental health issues.” On the February 16 episode, Charles is tasked with helping not a walk-in but a colleague with combat-related PTSD. “The show has an opportunity to address important public health issues,” Platt says. “That’s very fulfilling to be a part of.” His fellow Chicago-trilogy actors would certainly raise their glasses at Molly’s to that.
Chicago Fire, Tuesdays, 10/9c, NBC
Chicago P.D., Wednesdays, 10/9c, NBC
Chicago Med, Tuesdays, 9/8c, NBC