Image: NBCUniversal

“Hollywood is hype, New York is talk, Chicago is work.”

Michael Douglas’ famous, decades-old assessment of two of the largest cities in the country—and a district of Los Angeles that, apt or not, has become shorthand for that sprawling metropolis—includes one of the most popular conceptions of the people of Chicago: a populace with its collective nose to the grindstone. Everyone has a job, post, shift, or gig, even if it varies as wildly in compensation as respect. Our city nicknames also evoke that hustle, the “Second City” positioning Chicago as eternally scrambling while Carl Sandburg’s “city of big shoulders” line describes a place perpetually braced for the rise and fall of industry.

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It’s a considerably more flattering perception for outsiders to have than the demonizing “inner-city” narrative pushed by politicians at home and abroad, which in recent years has threatened to overtake the former in the public consciousness. So it’s with cautious optimism that locals (including this member of The A.V. Club staff) regard Dick Wolf’s growing Chicago empire. The three series that make up his franchise—Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., and Chicago Med—would seem to offer some of the best PR the city can get, centered as they are on first responders and public servants, and filming on location for a change. (The Chicago-set ER was primarily shot on a Warner Bros. soundstage) Wolf’s long-standing partnership with NBC offers a national stage for the shows’ heroic storytelling and diverse casts, and that platform’s just gotten even bigger. Starting September 26, the Chicago shows will dominate the network’s Wednesday night lineup, airing back to back to back.

The network celebrated that unprecedented move on September 10, inviting press to join cast members and executive producers from all three shows at the Cinespace Chicago Film Studios, which is the center of production, and the Lagunitas Brewery in Pilsen. (Conducting interviews in a taproom at 8:30 a.m. on a Monday seems more like a Milwaukee thing, but on this day, it’s the Chicago way.) Similar events have been held under the auspices of “One Chicago” in the past, and it shows in the round-robin interviews that run like clockwork, as well as all the smiling, made-up faces so early in the morning. By the time we’re rushed out to the shuttles that are waiting to take us to the nearby sets, I’ve spoken to all of the showrunners—Chicago Fire’s Derek Haas, Chicago P.D.s Rick Eid, and Chicago Med’s Diane Frolov and Andrew Schneider—and 28 cast members. Sadly, Oliver Platt, who plays Dr. Daniel Charles on Chicago Med, never made it to the table I shared with two other journalists, but Dick Wolf himself dropped by to talk up the shared universe he helped create.

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It all started in 2012 with Chicago Fire, which initially seemed to borrow from the ambulance ride-along episodes of ER. But as he told Variety in 2016, Wolf actually thinks of the first Chicago show as a “blue-collar soap opera.” Fire has the requisite hunks and beauties, including Jesse Spencer, Taylor Kinney, Kara Killmer, and Monica Raymund (who, after season six, is no longer a regular cast member), and its melodrama burns bright, even though the setting is decidedly more working class than the boardrooms and palatial manors of most soaps. But the angle Wolf was pushing in that comparison was longevity: Guiding Light ran for 57 years on CBS (and that doesn’t include its years on the radio); General Hospital is in its 55th year; and so on. The mega-producer thinks the Chicago shows could run for many years—and he sees strength in numbers, which is why he and Matt Olmstead spun off Chicago P.D., which stars Jason Beghe, Jon Seda (who originated the role of Antonio Dawson on Fire), and Marina Squerciati, in 2014 and Chicago Med in 2015. Wolf described his three shows to TV Insider in 2016 as a “Chicago version of Dickens’ London, where any character from any of his books could show up in another.” What Wolf is attempting with crossovers and characters that bridge franchises—the Chicago shows have teamed up with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in the pastand time zones is serialization on a previously unseen scale.

Yaya DaCosta, Kara Killmer, Dick Wolf, Brian Tee, Annie Ilonzeh, and Jon Seda
Photo: Parrish Lewis/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank (Getty Images)

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Indeed, “Audiences have never seen anything like this before” is a common refrain throughout the “One Chicago” junket. Everyone from P.D.’s Jesse Lee Soffer and LaRoyce Hawkins to Fire’s Annie Ilonzeh and David Eigenberg to showrunners like Haas and Eid marvel at the scope of their interconnected shows. S. Epatha Merkerson, who followed up a 17-season run on Law & Order by joining Chicago Med, believes Wolf’s vision is a singular one: “This is something that Dick always does is, he stretches the boundaries. Who would have ever thought that you could have three shows that are connected on the same night? You know who did? Dick. Over the years I’ve seen him become bolder, and really change the face of network television. He’s done that consistently and especially for NBC.”

Wolf could have easily continued to indulge his muse in his native New York (and, with the upcoming 20th season of SVU as well as the premiere of FBI, it looks like he will). What prompted the move to Chicago, which hasn’t served as a major production hub in a century? That is, aside from the generous tax incentive for filming? Wolf tells me he doesn’t think any other major U.S. city could inspire or provide the backdrop for these tales of self-sacrifice and community. “Chicago is in the heart of the country and is the heart of the country. I don’t know if you could have some of the attitudes from this show on the New York shows because it would either be dismissed as ‘those people are too good.’ In New York, people don’t think like this, but they kind of do in the middle of the country.”

Colin Donnell
Photo: Jim Young/AFP (Getty Images)

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Wolf isn’t the only one who’s caught Chicago boosterism—everyone who plunks down across from me offers some variant on “salt of earth,” “hardworking,” “optimistic,” “kind,” and as Jesse Lee Soffer puts it, “unimaginably loyal.” That, he says, is what the show’s producers have recognized as “the strength of the Midwest, and a strength of Chicago.” When Fire’s Taylor Kinney says, “The only way people here make it through these winters is together,” some of his cast mates call out from the next table to agree with him.

These are probably standard talking points for these junkets, but everyone seems to have a genuine affection for the city they’ve called home for a few months of each of the last several years. People talk about their favorite hangouts, which, to their credit, include places well outside of the Loop. Some actors, like Med’s Colin Donnell and Norma Kuhling, pledge to work “jagoff” into their everyday vocabulary, while their co-stars Yaya DaCosta and Brian Tee shout out the local actors who lend the shows much of their authenticity. The years of working together have created a real sense of community, and of a connection to Chicago’s disparate communities that has translated to the small screen. Wolf’s appetite for expansion might fuel the spin-offs and crossovers, but they wouldn’t be nearly as successful or interesting without the camaraderie among the casts. The first crossover of the year is already scheduled for October 3rd, but the three season premieres (which aired September 26) still feel complementary, almost modular. This, it seems, is what Wolf’s vision is: a Chicago whose citizenry and emergency personnel work together.

That’s a nice fantasy, and one that draws in millions of viewers each week—though it remains to be seen what kind of holdover there will be between shows. (Med currently leads the other Chicago shows in the ratings, and is first in the Wednesday night lineup.) But shows about first responders and emergency room doctors are generally grounded in realism, something that’s missing from this franchise’s big picture despite the extensive on-location shoots. There is a genuine attempt at verisimilitude when it comes to the characters, as the casts of Fire, P.D., and Med all have consultants to help them nail the terminology and demeanors of their respective fields. (Everyone is still Hollywood hot, but at least they dress down.) Vowels are flattened and consonants sanded off in their speech. But the city’s broken infrastructure is an occasional plot point when it should be a part of the series’ culture; otherwise, you have moments of dissonance like the one during our Med set visit, where the cast and producer show off the in-show state-of-the-art technology. Stroger Hospital is several steps up from the old Cook County Hospital, but Med’s Gaffney Chicago Medical Center emergency room looks more like a Star Trek sick bay than a public hospital in a city full of underfunded healthcare facilities.

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Eamonn Walker, S. Epatha Merkerson, and Jesse Spencer
Photo: Jim Young/AFP/GettyImages (Getty Images)

Realism gets thornier when it comes to P.D. Wolf has a history of lionizing law enforcement officials, an approach that grows more questionable with each claim of police brutality. But some of that work is already being done on set: Chicago native Amy Morton, who plays Sgt. Trudy Platt, acknowledges the city’s “gnarly, complicated, deep, fucked-up issues,” while LaRoyce Hawkins, of Harvey, Illinois, describes wrestling with the same issues as his character, Officer Kevin Atwater: “I’m always exploring the line between black and blue.”

On the day that we’re all gathered at the Lagunitas taproom, jury selection had begun in the trial of Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago police officer who fatally shot Laquan McDonald. When I ask how these real-life events inform the storytelling, P.D. showrunner Rick Eid says “Whatever the issues are, we try to explore it from all sides of that angle, to give everyone a voice.”

The world isn’t as simple as people sitting home on social media tweeting out things. The show’s cops are getting shot at, and they realize it’s an 8-year-old kid with a gun. What do you do? We try to find those moments of anything can happen when you’re a cop and you go behind that closed door. At the end of the day, I’m sure there are plenty of cops that have done bad things. But our cops are also good people and they risk their lives, and we want to show how hard it is and dangerous and all the split-second decisions.

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Medical and police dramas often skirt implausibility with their seemingly endless resources and complete transparency between departments (Wolf’s FBI makes local and federal law enforcement look especially cozy), and the Chicago shows are by no means the worst offenders. But if “authenticity” is the order of the day—and at one point, Med’s medical advisor makes us scrub in before we’re allowed near the fake body Donnell’s character will eventually operate on—then it’s both beneficial and crucial to acknowledge what doesn’t work in Chicago.