"Law & Order" ended its two-decade run of new episodes in 2010, but you could argue even that was too soon. For the person who loads her DVR with gently used reruns to cue up when nothing else will do the trick, "Chicago Justice" might be the closest executive producer Dick Wolf has come to scratching that old itch.
Wolf has carved out a new Chicago-centric niche in the years since "L&O," but the show (unlike its spinoffs) was always his strongest. And if he's willing to make a slightly refreshed second-gen version — well, what's the problem? This might be the best news out of NBC all year.
"Chicago Justice" is Wolf's fourth series set in Chicago, and this time out he has longtime collaborator and "Law & Order" veteran Michael S. Chernuchin at the helm as showrunner. It premieres Wednesday as part of a three-part franchise crossover with "Chicago Fire" and "Chicago P.D." (a programming block that will repeat again Saturday) before moving to its regular time slot at 8 p.m. Sundays. (With an additional episode next Tuesday. Don't ask. For viewers interested in the show but without a DVR to automatically record it, this hopscotching schedule will be a nightmare.)
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A sturdy, good-looking, somewhat formulaic drama — not a criticism, not when the formula is "L&O" — it is perhaps a bit too studio-bound and could use more real-world locations shot outside in the city itself. But the show is satisfyingly well-made. Relax, sit back, you know the drill.
Carl Weathers stars as the pragmatic, politically astute Cook County State's Attorney Mark Jefferies, and all the "L&O" tropes are in place. The chat in the medical examiner's office. Jefferies sidling up to his underling's office to lean on the door frame and offer some hard truths about the case. The occasional gallows humor. Even Paul Robinette (played by Richard Brooks), an assistant DA on the first few seasons of "L&O," shows up in Sunday's episode to reinforce the connection.
Weathers may be the big name on the show, but he's used sparingly. He's the kind of performer who believably conveys "I'm in charge," and that works well in small doses. The furniture in his office includes the same kind of tufted burgundy leather couch that I swear was in Adam Schiff's office on "L&O," just in case the echoes weren't strong enough. (They will get even stronger.)'Chicago Justice' Parrish Lewis
Monica Barbaro as Anna Valdez, Joelle Carter as Laura Nagel and Jon Seda as Antonio Dawson in "Chicago Justice."
Monica Barbaro as Anna Valdez, Joelle Carter as Laura Nagel and Jon Seda as Antonio Dawson in "Chicago Justice."(Parrish Lewis)
Jefferies' two ASAs are Peter Stone (Philip Winchester, of "Fringe"), a square-jawed idealist (you're in the wrong job, pal) and his less experienced but super-glam and serious-minded colleague Anna Valdez (Monica Barbaro). They work with a pair of no-nonsense investigators played by "Justified's" Joelle Carter and Jon Seda, who has shifted over from "Chicago P.D."
Want more "L&O" connections? Stone is the son of the original DA on that show, Ben Stone, but his hard-nosed persistence, his whole air, it's all very Jack McCoy. Winchester's cut-and-dried approach to the character works, even when the speechifying gets a bit much. "Our country is coming apart at the seams," he tells Valdez over beers. "People have lost all their faith in our institutions — the universities, the churches, the government — nobody trusts any of them anymore."
Valdez: "And you're going to change their mind?"
Stone: "No. But I'm going to argue that our little corner of the world is well and doing fine — a man dies; those responsible will go to prison."
Ahahahahahhahaha … ahhhh.
The format of "Chicago Justice" may be deeply comforting — familiar, durable, entertaining —but it doesn't bother humanizing its crime victims and their families, not in the episode made available to critics. ("L&O" would at least give them a line or two that told you something about their lives.) Philosophically, the show is all over the place and in ways that feel disingenuous. That's always the risk with a ripped-from-the-headlines approach. These real-world events are not specific to Chicago; they don't need to be, but it's a nagging element of all the Wolf shows that, other than the visuals, they don't particularly feel rooted in Chicago.
And yet Wolf clearly feels some sort of kinship or admiration or a blend of economic-creative something for the city.
"No place exemplifies the strength of America like Chicago," he said a few years back when he was just beginning to expand the franchise, and certainly the city has benefited from that largesse. If you listen to our president, the city represents something quite different, and it makes you wonder what a conversation between the two might sound like were the topic Chicago. For now, on a weekly basis anyway, Wolf will get the last word.
"Chicago Justice" premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday as part of a three-part crossover that begins with "Chicago Fire" (7 p.m.) and "Chicago P.D." (8 p.m.)
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