TV NotesDick Wolf’s Drama: This Is His Story
By Amy Chozick, The New York Times
- Oct. 7, 2012Dick Wolf, at center in jacket, celebrating the 300th episode of
“Law & Order: SVU” at Chelsea Piers. (Joshua Bright for The New York Times)
A couple of writers on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” huddled with a casting director. “What we need is the girl who looks like the adorable big sister, but then she turns out to be a pedophile’s accomplice,” an executive producer, Warren Leight, told his team.
Since its 1999 debut, “SVU,” the stalwart sex-crimes sibling of the original “Law & Order,” has delivered viewers a predictable, and beloved, formula of whodunit storytelling. Now the creator of the “Law & Order” brand, Dick Wolf — whose name is so tethered to television drama that just hearing it evokes an ominous chung-chung sound in many viewers’ minds — is branching out. He is taking his signature fast-paced realism (or what he calls “trompe l’oeil cinéma vérité”) outside New York to a Chicago firehouse. And unlike his strict procedural style, which gives little character back story, “Chicago Fire“ hinges as much on the messy personal lives of firefighters and paramedics as the fires, car accidents and other calamities they handle.
Mr. Wolf’s team calls “Chicago Fire,” which begins Wednesday on NBC, “Dick Wolf 2.0,” a slightly evolved approach for a big-name producer firmly committed to the creative doctrine that made “Law & Order” a billion-dollar property and one of the most lucrative franchises ever on television.
But “Law & Order” and its offshoots have taken a hit lately, a product of changing tastes in broadcast television toward character-focused dramas with story lines that stretch from episode to episode. For Mr. Wolf, after decades of prime-time ubiquity, the current television season represents a crossroads. The question is whether he can depart successfully from his formula, especially after his previous prime-time efforts to break with the format, the NBC show “Conviction” and ABC’s “L.A. Dragnet,” didn’t catch on. Early reviews of “Chicago Fire” have been mixed. (The Huffington Post said, “For a show about fire, it lacks any kind of spark.”) That raises the stakes for Mr. Wolf as he pushes into fresh territory unrelated to “the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute offenders.”
In 2010 NBC canceled “Law & Order” after 20 years and more than 450 episodes. It canceled “Law & Order: L.A.” after a single season last year, which is when “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” concluded its run on USA. “SVU,” now in its 14th season, may outrank most other NBC dramas in the ratings, but the numbers have fallen since one of its stars, Christopher Meloni, departed in 2011.
“I have a very selfish agenda: my shows,” Mr. Wolf said over breakfast at the Four Seasons in New York. Newly slim, he adheres to the “cave-man diet,” eating only foods presumed to have been consumed in the Paleolithic era. He carries the luxurious leather briefcase of a high-priced defense attorney and wears orange socks with New Balance sneakers.
“I recognize that in the 26 years I’ve been on the air there’s probably never been a day when someone said, ‘Do you love NBC today?’ ” he said. “It’s a very long-term, very, very profitable business relationship, and 95 percent of the time our goals are the same. The other 5 percent of the time the network has its own agenda.”
Bob Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, said he and Mr. Wolf discussed his branching out beyond “Law & Order. “I said to him, ‘You’ve obviously done all the versions of ‘Law & Order’ anyone could imagine, and that’s been brilliant and long going, but it’s time to move into a different franchise,” Mr. Greenblatt said.
“Chicago Fire,” an ensemble drama pitched to NBC as “ ‘E.R.’ in a firehouse,” is the result of those discussions. The show has continuing story lines, like the fallout from a paramedic’s accidentally plunging a needle through a girl’s heart and a rookie’s adaptation to life in the firehouse. But each episode also has plots neatly resolved after 42 minutes.
“This is one of our more character-driven shows,” said Peter Jankowski, an executive producer on each “Law & Order” iteration and on “Chicago Fire.” But he added: “I feel strongly that there’s always a place for procedurals on TV. Part of me thinks ‘Law & Order’ died an early death.”
Mr. Wolf said he didn’t have to venture too far from his preferred brand of storytelling to keep the network happy. He has worked with NBC since “Hill Street Blues” in the mid-’80s, through several owners and many different network chiefs, and he said he understood that tastes change depending on who is in charge. Mr. Greenbatt tends to prefer serialized dramas like the musical drama “Smash” and the apocalyptic sci-fi series “Revolution.” Even “SVU” more frequently uses story lines that stretch across episodes without venturing too far from its standard crescendo.
Mr. Wolf thought back to an early writing job in the mid-’80s on “Miami Vice,” alongside Michael Mann. “ ‘Miami Vice’ wasn’t serialized, but they all wore white suits, and there were alligators,” so everyone thought it was different, he said.
Firefighters have never matched doctors, lawyers or cops as TV’s go-to characters. “Rescue Me” on FX had a small but devoted following. NBC canceled “Third Watch” in 2005, and Fox’s “L.A. Firefighters” burned out after six episodes. Lest the cast and crew of “Chicago Fire” forget that the show should represent the Wolf Brand, a photo of the producer dressed in full fire captain regalia hangs in the background of a set.
In all of Mr. Wolf’s shows the audience can never be ahead of the characters. In “Chicago Fire” that means a camera wouldn’t enter a burning building before the firefighters. “It’s that not knowing that creates the tension,” Joe Chappelle, an executive producer and director on “Chicago Fire,” said during a break from shooting.
Mr. Wolf’s formula also includes the ability to kill off major characters if actors get too demanding. He built that same insurance policy into “Chicago Fire.” Of firefighting, he said, “It’s a very dangerous profession.”
Visually Mr. Wolf insists that his shows have a raw naturalism, the antithesis of glossy crime dramas like “CSI” on CBS and “White Collar” on USA. The recreation room at the firehouse is littered with fliers and old copies of The Chicago Sun-Times. The Hollywood good looks of the cast, led by Taylor Kinney (“The Vampire Diaries”) and the “House” alumnus Jesse Spencer, are played down with frumpy T-shirts and scrubs.
“Dick wanted that beat-up feel,” said Steve Chikerotis, a veteran Chicago firefighter who trained actors on how to properly hold an ax and climb ladders. He added, “And when it comes from Dick, it’s more than a suggestion.”
Several “Law & Order” veterans have been hired to run “Chicago Fire,” but ultimately it’s Mr. Wolf who signs off on scripts, casting and editing. Arthur W. Forney, who has worked on every “Law & Order” series, recalled an early meeting with Mr. Wolf. “He said: ‘Always remember, you can’t talk me out of anything. I still have six frames on the pilot of ‘Law & Order’ that I wish hadn’t made it in there,’ ” Mr. Forney said.
Mr. Wolf did agree to reshoot the opening of the “Chicago Fire” pilot to add a scene that shows how the firefighter Andy Darden dies, a thread throughout the series that had only been alluded to before. “I hate reshooting, but you have to be able to look at stuff and say it doesn’t work,” Mr. Wolf said.
“Chicago Fire” is filmed in Chicago, and Mr. Wolf said his dream would be a franchise of shows set there that could employ local actors and become part of the town’s fabric the way “Law & Order” did in New York. “It’s like a polite New York,” he said of Chicago. The series, if successful, would anchor Wolf Films in the Midwest, where Illinois provides generous tax credits.
Even as he tries to build his Chicago franchise, Mr. Wolf is working to keep “SVU” relevant. After breakfast he headed to Chelsea Piers, where “SVU” is shot. The cast and crew took a break to toast a milestone: the drama’s 300th episode. Already a syndication gold mine, the longer “SVU” remains on NBC, the more original episodes the studio can sell to cable channels that pack their schedules with marathons of repeats. “Thank you all, and let’s go make another 300,” Mr. Wolf told the crowd.
But the celebration didn’t last long. “SVU” is the yeoman’s work of episodic television, and shortly after, a crew member yelled, “Back to work, peasants!”
Last season Mr. Leight, a veteran of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” replaced the longtime “SVU” executive producer and made changes, like moving the writing staff to New York from Los Angeles. “We needed writers who knew the right ethnic groups and didn’t write chase scenes in alleys,” he said.
Still, it’s hard not to feel that “SVU,” the last remaining “Law & Order” spinoff, could soon be a victim. It delivers solid ratings for NBC, particularly among women 18 to 34, yet the network put it on Wednesday at 9 p.m., against “Modern Family” on ABC, “Criminal Minds” on CBS and “The X Factor” on Fox. “We’re like the Australian soldiers at NBC,” Mr. Leight said. “They throw us in the toughest situations.”
On NBC’s schedule before “SVU” are the freshman sitcoms “Animal Practice,” about a veterinarian, and “Guys With Kids,” about dads in their 30s. “That’s my lead-in, a monkey show,” Mr. Wolf said. (The two-hour Sept. 26 premiere of “SVU” captured an average of 7.2 million viewers, putting it in fourth place in the time slot.)
Mr. Greenblatt said that Wednesday night would be tough for any show. “We wanted ‘SVU’ to go there because it has a loyal audience, and I wanted it to lead into ‘Chicago Fire,’ ” he said.
“Chicago Fire” uses the same Chicago soundstages as last year’s short-lived “Playboy Club,” a constant reminder of the challenges a new NBC drama faces.
Mr. Wolf acknowledged that no one knows what shows will work. “ ‘Chicago Fire’ could turn out to be a hit. I could be so busy I’ll say, ‘What the hell did I do this for?’ ” he said. “Or on the other hand, I could be politely out of business on Oct. 21. Those are the stakes.”http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/07/arts/television/chicago-fire-and-the-changing-dick-wolf.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&ref=television&adxnnlx=1349496976-refNJSWsTws2aHcdWC6CzQ