Arts Feature: 7 Reasons Law & Order creator Dick Wolf has kept audiences hooked

Chicago PD - Season 1

What is it about Dick Wolf programs that has made him one of TV’s most successful producers? What is it about them that has audiences so captivated, sometimes for decades? First debuting in 1990, the iconic series Law & Order is without question Wolf’s most endearing program, running for twenty seasons, making it the longest-running crime drama on American primetime television and it ties with Gunsmoke for the longest-running dramatic show in television history. But unlike some shows of this ilk, it wasn’t without critical acclaim either – Law & Order was nominated for the most consecutive Emmy Awards of any primetime drama series.

Its spin-off, Special Victims Unit (or SVU for short), is now in its 16th season, with some 350 episodes under its procedural belt. Criminal Intent lasted ten seasons and whilst Trial By Jury and Los Angeles spin-offs weren’t quite as successful, the brand now extends all the way to the UK.

And the successful spin-offs don’t start and end at Law & Order, Wolf’s more recent venture was in the development of a TV series called Chicago Fire, a series set unsurprisingly in the Chicago Fire Department. Following its successful first season in 2012, Wolf was called upon to create a spin-off series which turned our attention from the FD to the PD – Chicago P.D. premiered earlier this year in the US and now is getting a home in Australia on the Universal Channel on FOXTEL, with the series premiering with a double-episode on Thursday November 20 at 8.30pm.

As we anticipate the new procedural drama from the undisputed king of procedural dramas, we’re taking a look back at Wolf’s creative history to ask the question: what makes his shows so damn popular? Here now are 7 reasons that when Wolf gets it right, the world can’t stop watching…


There’s something to be said for a formula. You know what you’re going to get – and usually it’s going to be wrapped up in a tight package after its 44 minutes plus commercial breaks. In Law & Order Wolf got the formula down to a tee: Investigate the Crime. Apprehend the Suspect. Just about all of its 456 episodes came down to the same routine, split almost perfectly down the middle. There’s something to be said for solving the crime before bedtime.

The guest stars

There was that time that Sandy Cohen popped up in SVU…

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit - Season 16

And Alec Baldwin…


And that was just this year! Oh, but Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher) is here to stay. Which is most excellent. Those eyebrows! But back onto the topic at hand… a guest star spot on a show like SVU has become something of a rite of passage for actors, which certainly keeps things interesting against a reasonably slow-changing lead cast. Even Dawson (James Van Der Beek) has made an appearance:

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit - Season 13

A killer ensemble…

A Dick Wolf production isn’t just about one or two characters – it’s about a group of gritty, oh-so-serious detectives, fire fighters, policemen… How they live and work together, solving crimes and balancing that with their own lives. How much he focuses on the characters outside of the crimes differs from show to show, but ultimately it’s our relationship with these characters that keeps us watching. And this has been proven time and time again by changes in ratings whenever a cast favourite leaves… but as this isn’t Murder She Wrote, no change seems to keep people away for that long…

Clang Clang

You know what we’re talking about. That iconic sound that introduces new scenes throughout each episode. When it comes down to it, it’s this and the characters themselves that ultimately separate this show from the pile of imitators that have come since, and the procedural shows that came before it.

Sticking with what you know works best…

For every show that’s worked for Wolf, he’s had a plenty that haven’t. Take Deadline, a sort-off spin off from the Law & Order world, starring big screen actor Oliver Platt. The power of having the name, power and money of someone like Wolf though is that they can try new shows, and get them green-lit. Sometimes, like with Deadline or the similarly short lived Conviction, yet another L&O spin-off starring Stephanie March in her SVU role as Alexandra Cabot. Both shows were attempts to move away from the procedural formula. With Deadline a drama in the world of Journalism and Conviction a show more focused on character development than Vincent D’Onofrio discovering the intent of a criminal.

Chicago Fire returned Wolf to the same world, though as he served as executive producer rather than creator, it wouldn’t be until Chicago P.D. that he would be able to put his procedural charm to the test once again. And sure enough, it’s proven a smash hit. As we write this article, the US is even premiering a “three way cross over” between Fire, P.D. and SVU to expand the Wolf created universe and give fans plenty to enjoy.

A world of imitators

You know you’ve done something right if you’re TV series has spawned a world of imitators ever since. And like Law & Order‘s own spin-offs, some have worked and some have not. But when you look at a list of shows that includes Bones, Castle, NYPD Blue, CSI or NCIS there has been a pretty consistent run of shows in the procedural drama shows in the USA and abroad. Even Third Watch had five seasons.

Though to be fair, Law & Order had plenty of predecessors too, from Columbo to Adam-12, Hill Street Blues (which features the same police station used in Chicago P.D) to Hawaii Five-O this is an easy-to-watch genre that when done right, ends up lasting for years… And why not?


I’ll just leave this one here…


With these seven facts in mind, Chicago P.D., premiering this Thursday at 8.30pm on the Universal Channel, has all the makings of some spectacularly addictive – Dick Wolf approved – television. He’s upgraded the formula, brought in what looks like a phenomenal ensemble and promised plenty of surprises along the way. Stay tuned to The AU Review for more in the lead up to the premiere.

Chicago P.D continues on Universal Channel, Thursdays at 8:30pm – if you miss the premier, you can catch the encore double episode on Saturday at 5:30pm or Sunday at 8:30pm AEDT. For more information on the show head to Universal Channel’s Facebook Page HERE

Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.