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Why Dick Wolf's 'Chicago' series evoke the success of 'Law & Order'

Remember the ’90s, when Dick Wolf was king of NBC? Everywhere you turned, there was a Law & Order episode or a spinoff episode playing. When Law & Order finally went off the air a few years ago, it seemed like the Dick Wolf dynasty was over, the only remainder being Law & Order: SVU and reruns of the original series on USA and WE. But Wolf has come back to reign over his NBC kingdom with the Chicago series of shows: Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., and Chicago Med.

It would seem like the two brands of shows are completely different, but there are actually a lot of similarities. The first and most obvious is that the Chicago series and the Law & Order series are both about the men and women on the front lines of our streets. Both series do more than just laud the country’s first responders in an empty fashion; they show some of the dangers people in this line of work have to deal with. Chicago Fire is personally special for me because my father is a part of the fire department. He has worked his way up and has been in every kind of situation you can imagine, and from speaking with him, at least 75 to 80 percent of what is shown in the show is close enough to what he’s had to been through on the job. Of course, it’s a television show, so there are many liberties taken. But such a high degree of accuracy is pretty cool.

This level of accuracy for a fictional show reveals how much the writers, actors, and possibly even the crew have researched their characters’ jobs. The same seems to hold true for Chicago P.D. and Chicago Med. While I’m not personally sure what goes into policing and hospital work (although my dad is also a paramedic), it appears that the Chicago series still tried to keep the same level of realism throughout its titles. (The most unrealistic could be Chicago P.D., but if you’ve been keeping up with the news, that opinion could be debatable).

Law & Order also wanted to have a basis in realism and grittiness. (Law & Order: SVU started out with the same intentions, but has gone from an “unbiased reporting” point-of-view to pure soap opera). The main selling point of Law & Order was that it was a Dragnet-esque cop show—a show that was all about undressed depictions of cops, the victims they served, and the criminals they apprehended. Detective Briscoe is basically the ’90s version of Sergeant Joe Friday, with a little Humphrey Bogart–as-hardboiled-detective thrown in. That focus on straightforward storytelling rather than cartoony heroes and villains made Law & Order a hit, and there are grains of that in the Chicago series. (As a sidebar, Law and Order: UK picked up on the grittiness of its parent and ran with it, making it, in my opinion, the best and most gripping Law & Order spinoff).

Of course, as alluded to in the critique of Law & Order: SVU, there’s also a level of television expectation that comes with these shows, and that involves getting to know the characters outside of their jobs. There is a certain amount of soap to the Chicago series, to be sure, but there’s also a strong thread of character building. Each character has their problems and issues, but they still want to do what’s right (even if they sometimes do the wrong thing for the right reasons). We didn’t get to know the Law & Order characters on the same type of personal level as we have the Chicago cast of characters, but we still got to see Law & Order‘s cops and lawyers mentally wrestle with each other as cases brought out their conflicting opinions on certain elements. Chicago Med recently focused on this style of character-based storytelling in their recent episode “iNo,” in which a 14-year-old girl is rushed to the hospital after delivering a baby. Dr. Ethan Choi, a hardened veteran, has to learn how to reaccess his emotions after being cornered by Dr. Natalie Manning, a pregnant widow who states that the girl needs a family, not a life in jail (something Choi was saying would happen to her). The case makes both of them realize that the other one’s point of view isn’t wrong; Manning realizes that just because she wants someone to want to have a stable family life doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, as sad as it is. And Choi realizes that he needs to show he cares more about his patients, especially the baby the girl leaves behind.

Naturally, shows about firemen, police officers, and hospital doctors and nurses are a good bet for television, but while many of these procedurals premiere, only a few stick around for the long haul. Wolf’s line of shows from the ’90s to today are proof that if you want your show to have a good chance at being one of the lucky few, it needs to take reference directly from the subject matter. The combination of character development, research, and a journalistic approach wins every time.

TV Families | EW.com
Mark Harris
February 23, 1990 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Bradys are back, with a passel of 90’s hassles. Do they represent the typical American Family? Did they ever? Who does? Stare and compare!

Kind Of Family
TheBradyBunch 1969-74: Blended
The Bradys 1990-: Enormous
Married…With Children 1987-: Postnuclear
Thirtysomething 1987-: Extended
The Flintstones 1960-66: Modern Stone Age

Family Pet
The Brady Bunch: Tiger
The Bradys: Alice
Married…With Children: Buck
Thirtysomething: Grendel
The Flintstones: Dino

Typical Guest Star
The Brady Bunch: Davey Jones
The Bradys: There’s no room
Married…With Children: Sam Kinison
Thirtysomething: Carly Simon
The Flintstones: Ann Margrock

Expression Of Joy
The Brady Bunch: Groovy!
The Bradys: Ritual hugging
Married…With Children: ”Oh, great.”
Thirtysomething: ”Of course I’m happy for you. Really. But what about me? Why does it always have to be about you?
The Flintstones: ”Yabba-dabba doo

Expression Of Rage

The Brady Bunch: ”Hmmm…”
The Bradys: ”If you back away from something you really want, then you’re a quitter!” (the angriest any Brady has ever been)
Married…With Children: ”Aaagh, God, take me from this miserable life!”
Thirtysomething: ”I’m not angry, OK?”
The Flintstones: ”Willllmaaaa!”

Typical Problem
The Brady Bunch: Marcia and her rival both want to be the prom queen.
The Bradys: Bobby gets paralyzed.
Married…With Children: Al doesn’t buy his family Christmas presents.
Thirtysomething: Nancy gets cancer.
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney are staying out too late.

Typical Solution
The Brady Bunch: The prom committee decides to have two queens.
The Bradys: Bobby gets married.
Married…With Children: They hate him.
Thirtysomething: If only we knew…
The Flintstones: Wilma and Betty decide to follow them.

House Style
The Brady Bunch: Conservative but mod, circa ’69
The Bradys: Conservative but mod, circa ’90
Married…With Children: Roach motel
Thirtysomething: Enviable
The Flintstones: Suburban cave

Clothing Style
The Brady Bunch: Early Osmonds
The Bradys: Made in the USA
Married…With Children: Flammable fabrics
Thirtysomething: Eclectic earth tones; nice ties
The Flintstones: One-piece

Most Annoying Character
The Brady Bunch: Alice’s cousin Emma, the substitute housekeeper (too strict)
The Bradys: Marcia’s husband, Wally (chronically unemployable)
Married…With Children: Steve (supercilious)
Thirtysomething: Ellyn (goes through Hope’s drawers, babbles, changes hairstyle every other week, generally mistreats her friends)
The Flintstones: Mr. Slate (bossy)

Attitude Toward Sex
The Brady Bunch: Never heard of it
The Bradys: Omigod — even Cindy does it!
Married…With Children: Peg: Yes. Al: No.
Thirtysomething: They didn’t get all those kids by accident.
The Flintstones: Prehistoric

How Spouses Fight
The Brady Bunch: They don’t.
The Bradys: Infrequently, but it happens
Married…With Children: Tooth and nail
Thirtysomething: They stop talking
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney go bowling while Wilma and Betty max out their charge cards.

How Kids Get Into Trouble
The Brady Bunch: Greg takes a puff of a cigarette.
The Bradys: Carol’s grandson steals her business cards and sticks them in the spokes of Bobby’s wheelchair.
Married…With Children: By committing felonies
Thirtysomething: Ethan plays with a forbidden toy rocket.
The Flintstones: They don’t.

How They’re Punished

The Brady Bunch: ”It’s not what you did, honey — it’s that you couldn’t come to us.”
The Bradys ”Next time, ask.”
Married…With Children: By the authorities
Thirtysomething: It blows up in his face.
The Flintstones: They’re not.

What Family Does For Fun
The Brady Bunch: Takes special three-part vacations to Hawaii and the Grand Canyon
The Bradys: Has flashbacks
Married…With Children: Exchanges insults
Thirtysomething: Talks
The Flintstones: Attends showings of The Monster at the Bedrock Drive-In

Unsolved Mysteries
The Brady Bunch: How exactly did Carol’s first husband and Mike’s first wife die?
The Bradys: What’s with Marcia’s new face and Bobby’s blonde hair
Married…With Children: What kind of hair spray does Peg use?
Thirtysomething: Why did Nancy take Elliot back? What do Gary and Susanna see in each other?
The Flintstones: How does Barney’s shirt stay on if he has no shoulders? Where do Fred and Wilma plug in their TV?

Worst Behavior
The Brady Bunch: The Brady children once made Alice feel under-appreciated.

The Bradys: Marcia’s son Mickey watches Bobby’s car-crash tape for fun.
Married…With Children: The Bundy’s kill their neighbor’s dog.
Thirtysomething: Elliot has an affair and talks about it.
The Flintstones: Characters don’t wear under-clothes.

Best Reason To Watch
The Brady Bunch: This is what life should be.
The Bradys: They’re all grown-ups now!
Married…With Children: Terry Rakolta hates it.
Thirtysomething (Tie) This is your life. This isn’t your life.
The Flintstones: This is what life might have been.

Best Reason Not To Watch
The Brady Bunch: Blurred vision from rerun overdoses.
The Bradys: You’re all grown-ups now.
Married…With Children: She has a point.
Thirtysomething: After a while, you think it’s real.
The Flintstones: The Simpsons

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