Making drama from real life

Season 3 of Chicago P.D. stars (from far left) Jon Seda, Jason Beghe and Sophia Bush. Taylor Kinney stars in Season 4 of Chicago Fire.
Taylor Kinney stars in Season 4 of Chicago Fire.PHOTO: NBC UNIVERSAL
Season 3 of Chicago P.D. stars (from far left) Jon Seda, Jason Beghe and Sophia Bush. Taylor Kinney stars in Season 4 of Chicago Fire.
Season 3 of Chicago P.D. stars (from left) Jon Seda, Jason Beghe and Sophia Bush.PHOTO: NBC UNIVERSAL
Season 3 of Chicago P.D. stars (from far left) Jon Seda, Jason Beghe and Sophia Bush. Taylor Kinney stars in Season 4 of Chicago Fire.

Television producer Dick Wolf of Law & Order fame says his success stems from knowing how to mine real life for stories

Procedural dramas are the quiet workhorses of American television, consistently getting some of the highest viewing numbers.

Popular case-of-the-week series about law, crime and medicine do not get a lot of love from TV critics, though.

The lack of critical acclaim seems to rankle a pioneer in the genre, Law & Order creator Dick Wolf.

"There is a thing called the Metacritic score," says Wolf, referring to a website that aggregates ratings from TV critics, "and these shows don't do very well on those".

He notes that his series often average middling scores of 50 or so out of 100.

He contrasts this with the adoration accorded to so-called prestige dramas with far smaller audiences than his titles, which sometimes capture 10 or more million viewers each an episode.

"We were doing something with a producer on the TV show Fargo, and he said Fargo got a Metacritic score of 96 and they had one million viewers," he says.

The company builds Mercedes S-Class sedans, not Ferraris. 

LAW & ORDER CREATOR DICK WOLF, on his production company making TV shows not to win over critics, but to get as many people as possible to watch them

Compared to these and other much-talked-about shows on cable or streaming platforms, however, his shows recall a bygone era.

"These shows are old-fashioned broadcast TV. We want to get as many people into the tent every week as we possibly can. It's a totally different business."

His vast television empire includes ongoing shows such as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999-present) and three series created within the last four years, Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D. and Chicago Med.

Wolf, 69, insists his goal is not to win over critics, but get as many people as possible to watch his shows.

His production company makes TV shows built for that purpose, he adds. "The company builds Mercedes S-Class sedans, not Ferraris."

As a viewer, he says he appreciates other shows, but he cannot resist pointing out how modest their ratings and output are, compared to his.

"I watch Homeland, I really like it. Breaking Bad was one of the best shows ever put on, but it ended with, what, 65 episodes or something?

"We're doing 87 hours of TV this year," he says, adding proudly that, to date, his procedural shows set in New York and Chicago have employed 40,000 actors in speaking roles.

He and the stars of his shows, such as Taylor Kinney, Jesse Spencer, Sophia Bush and S. Epatha Merkerson, say the programmes help educate Americans about law and medicine.

The producers take pride in how well researched the shows are and say that they rarely get their medical, legal and criminal-justice facts wrong.

"This is where most people get their medical and legal information," Wolf says. "In the 20 years that Law & Order was on, I don't think anyone caught us in a legal error. The information has to be correct."

Torrey DeVitto, 31, who plays a paediatrician in the hospital drama Chicago Med, says learning her lines has taught her a lot. "I never in my life thought I would get the education that I'm getting from playing a doctor on-screen."

Merkerson, 63, has appeared on several shows in the Law & Order franchise and now plays a hospital administrator in Chicago Med.

She says: "When you watch a Dick Wolf show, you sit down to be entertained. But when you get up, you've been educated, you've learnt something."

Together with Chicago Fire, which is about the city's fire- fighters, and Chicago P.D., which follows its policemen, the three shows spring from Wolf's fascination with "first responders" - the policemen, firemen and medical personnel.

He says their lives are an endless source of drama: "Look at the newspaper, you can't make this stuff up."

His actors thus take pains to honour the people they portray, whether they are first responders or Chicagoans in general.

Chicago Fire stars Kinney, 34, and Spencer, 37, say many of the city's residents feel like their show represents the town and have embraced it so much that they often confuse the actors for the firefighters they play.

The women also get plenty of opportunity to shine in Wolf's shows, where female doctors, policemen and firefighters are just as tough as their male counterparts.

Merkerson started out in a small supporting role on Law & Order, playing a cleaning lady whose son was murdered, before Wolf brought her back as the formidable New York City police lieutenant Anita Van Buren, a role she played for 17 years.

"It was a way of bringing women into the story," she says. "There weren't many female lieutenants when I started playing her."

Now the mantle has been passed to actresses such as Bush, 33, who plays tough detective Erin Lindsay on Chicago P.D.

"I like that my role conveys to young women that they can be the hero of their own story," says the actress. "It gives you purpose."

The universe of these shows is still expanding. Wolf has announced a fourth Chicago show, the upcoming Chicago Justice, which will focus on the legal system.

The tireless producer is jumping on the true-crime trend with plans for a new anthology series, Law & Order: True Crime. The first season will feature the notorious Menendez brothers who went on trial for murdering their parents in the 1990s.

Wolf, who has been a fixture on Forbes magazine's list of the most powerful people in Hollywood, with a net worth estimated at over US$250 million (S$338 million), knows that he has had a remarkable run of success.

"This has been the best ride that anybody's ever had in this medium. It's incredibly gratifying."

It all comes down to knowing where to look for inspiration and getting talented people to bring it to life on screen, he says.

"The best stories come out of real life and real people. Great writers and actors make it fun to watch."

• Chicago P.D. Season 3 airs on Universal Channel (StarHub TV Channel 512) on Monday, 9pm.

Chicago Fire Season 4 airs on Universal Channel on Thursday, 9pm.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Season 17 premieres on Diva (StarHub TV Channel 513) on May 19, 8pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 06, 2016, with the headline 'Making drama from real life'. Print Edition | Subscribe