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Dick Wolf knows his way around a (fictional) courtroom.
In addition to his current success with NBC’s ever-expanding Chicago franchise, the prolific producer is probably still best known as the creator of Law & Order. The Emmy-winning series ran for 20 seasons and spawned four spinoffs (Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, Law & Order: Los Angeles and Law & Order: SVU, now in its 18th season).
So when it came time for the Chicago universe to enter the legal fray, Wolf was happy to take the reins.
“I had a very strong idea of how I wanted the show to be,” Wolf tells The Hollywood Reporter of the forthcoming spinoff.
Launching Wednesday, Chicago Justice follows the State’s Attorney’s team of prosecutors and investigators as they navigate politics, the media and the law in their fight for justice in Cook County. Philip Winchester stars as ASA Peter Stone alongside Monica Barbaro as ASA Anna Valdez. Then there’s investigators Antonio Dawson (Jon Seda reprising his Chicago P.D. role) and Laura Nagel (Joelle Carter), and the man in charge, State’s Attorney Carl Jeffries (Carl Weathers).
The series first began as a backdoor pilot that aired as a May episode of Chicago P.D. With a story penned by Wolf, the hour saw Stone go up against a familiar face from the Law & Order world, defense attorney Shambala Green, a role Lorraine Toussaint had portrayed seven times on the mother ship.
“We steered into it right away,” series exec producer and Wolf Films president and COO Peter Jankowski says of the connections between the two worlds. “How do you play off the mythology, what we did in New York, with the new franchise and Chicago?”
An “essential” part of that, according to Jankowski, was bringing on longtime Law & Order exec producer Michael S. Chernuchin. A former showrunner on the original series with a law degree to boot, Chernuchin was approached shortly after the backdoor pilot was filmed.
His pitch for the spinoff? “Basically, I wanted to bring back Law & Order. I wanted grounded, things that could really happen, problems that really arise,” Chernuchin says. “And Dick said, ‘That’s exactly it. I want Law & Order but different.'”
Chernuchin came onboard as showrunner and went to work right away to solidify the link between the two series. That included confirming that Peter Stone was, in fact, the son of original Law & Order prosecutor Ben Stone (Michael Moriarty).
“It felt natural,” Jankowski says. “When we cast Philip, the idea going in wasn’t to make that character Ben Stone’s son but as we saw it develop and we saw the actor, it made sense.”
The familial connection is still somewhat surprising given Moriarty’s sudden departure from the show in 1994. At the time, the actor had threatened a lawsuit against then-Attorney General Janet Reno for calling Law & Order offensively violent and resigned from the series in a fax. Sam Waterston took his spot the following September and remained on the show for the next 16 seasons, until its 2010 series finale.
“It’s a touchstone for people who love Law & Order, but it’s not a story point,” says Wolf, who shoots down the possibility of a return by Moriarty.
Instead, the estranged relationship between father and son is revealed through exchanges between Peter and his father’s former right-hand man, Richard Brooks, who reprises his role as Paul Robinette in the second episode. (Additionally, Tovah Feldshuh reprises her role as defense attorney and now-judge Danielle Melnick in Wednesday’s episode.)
“Because we had make the connection to his father, then I thought, ‘OK, what do kids with famous fathers do?’ They reject them. So he did the thing as far from being a lawyer and an intellectual as he could: He became an athlete,” Chernuchin says about Peter Stone’s previous life as a professional baseball player. However, an injury brings him back to the courtroom. “You always go home and do what you’re genetically disposed to or psychologically disposed to do. But he brings that same athletic competitiveness to the courtroom.”
It appears the idea to revisit the many familiar faces from the Law & Order universe has been percolating in Wolf’s head for some time. In early 2015, reports surfaced about talks to revive the mother ship series for a limited run, but it never came to fruition.
“Why redo something that’s been done as good as it can be done less than 20 years ago?” Chernuchin says. “I love it that we’re doing new things and exploring new cities. There are problems in Chicago that didn’t exist in New York, like 400 murders a year.”
In addition to the police brutality issue during season one, expect other alterations that come with the scenery change. “It is a political town so there is a lot more political pressure put on the cases,” Chernuchin says of Chicago.
Many of those cases will pull from the headlines — something Law & Order became well-known for throughout its run. “We’re doing a lot of the issues the same but the country’s perspective is different now. Gay marriage is the law now. So you have to approach that kind of thing differently,” he says, also pointing to the rise of homegrown terrorism as opposed to large terrorist groups like Al Qaeda that Law & Order tackled in the second half of its original run.
Because of the focus on the case-of-the-week, personal storylines will take a back seat. “Character stuff will go from episode to episode but more in the Law & Order vein where it comes in drops,” Chernuchin says. “Like you find out [Valdez’s] mother is sick but she’s not going to emote about it.”
That approach marks a departure from the other Chicago shows, chiefly Chicago Fire, where the make-ups and breakups of the firefighters and paramedics factor heavily into stories.
“This one is a bit more self-contained with a beginning, middle and end. It centers a little bit less on the soap opera, a little bit more on tackling issues,” Jankowski says. “How do you look at an issue in this case from five different points of view when every one of them is right? Hopefully, there’s an honesty to that.”
For all the similarities between Chicago Justice and Law & Order, there are other key differences between the two as well. “Obviously Law & Order is in the DNA but it’s not a sibling,” Wolf says, pointing to the structure of Justice. “It’s a single-minded prosecutor show with its own investigators but it’s not bifurcated.”
As Chernuchin puts it, “It’s Law & Order if you shuffled the deck.”
And while producers tease more appearances from Law & Order alums in the future, Chernuchin also emphasizes the new faces viewers will grow to love (and love to hate) as Justice progresses.
“We’re trying to come up with our own Chicago-type people,” says the showrunner, pointing to a memorable upcoming turn by Mad Men grad Gary Basaraba, whose Chicago accent only appears when he’s trying to win over a jury.
It’s those small variations on the format that producers know will help Chicago Justice set itself apart from its larger-than-life predecessor. Says Chernuchin, “That’s what’s going to distinguish it.”
NBC’s Chicago Justice debuts Wednesday at 10 p.m. as part of a special three-hour crossover with Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. before making its time-slot premiere Sunday at 9 p.m.
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