It’s been almost seven years since NBC retired the original Law & Order. Every now and then, the Hollywood trade press will suggest that Dick Wolf and NBC want to bring back the series, but then little comes of it, perhaps because Wolf has been so busy overseeing his new empire: the Chicago Extended Cinematic Universe, which began with Chicago Fire and now also includes Chicago P.D. and Chicago Med.
We may still get a proper version of the mothership at some point — NBC boss Robert Greenblatt loves reboots, and so does most of the industry in this era of Zombie TV — but in the meantime, Wolf has come up with a stealthy way to do it: Chicago Justice, which is technically another spin-off of the Chicago shows, but has so much Law & Order DNA that the main character is literally the son of one of the original L&O leads.
Philip Winchester from Strike Back plays Peter Stone, son of Michael Moriarty’s Ben Stone from the first L&O cast, now working as a prosecutor in the State’s Attorney’s office in the Windy City. And Stone (who first appeared in a couple of Chicago P.D. episodes last year) finds himself in a show formatted(*) very much like the one that used to feature his old man.
(*) NBC for some reason elected not to give critics the first actual episode of the series, which debuts tomorrow night at 10pm ET as part of a three-way crossover with Fire and P.D. (plus appearances by the Med doctors). All I’ve seen is the first episode in the show’s regular timeslot, Sunday at 9 p.m.
Like the mothership, Justice‘s storytelling is represented by two separate but equally important groups, with much of the first half of the episode dedicated to State’s Attorney investigators Antonio Dawson (Jon Seda, transferring over from P.D.) and Laura Nagel (Joelle Carter from Justified), while the second half has Stone and Anna Valdez (Monica Barbaro) going into court and taking marching orders from wise old boss Mark Jefferies (Carl Weathers, his voice having graveled into something approximating the late, great Steven Hill).
It’s still obviously a Chicago show, not just with Seda, but with guest appearances by several other P.D. regulars, not to mention a case in Sunday’s episode where the defendant winds up being one of the P.D. cops(*). But it’s just as blatantly a L&O sequel, with Peter Stone displaying the same sense of flinty self-righteousness that fueled his dad, and with frequent appearances by mothership alums. Lorraine Toussaint returned as sneaky defense lawyer Shambala Green in the P.D. episode that introduced Peter Stone, Tovah Feldshuh is going to reprise her role as Danielle Melnick in tomorrow’s Justice part of the crossover, and Stone’s opposing counsel in Sunday’s episode winds up being none other than Richard Brooks as Paul Robinette, who was his father’s deputy for the first three L&O seasons.
(*) The Chicago franchise in many ways leans more on crossovers than even the CW’s Berlanti-verse comic book shows, not just with full-fledged events like tomorrow’s, but characters from one casually wandering into the others. As with superhero crossovers, it’s the kind of thing that’s fun if you watch all the shows (or read all the comics), but can grow tiring if you’re only into one or two of them. As someone who hasn’t watched P.D. since early in its run, a good chunk of the Justice episode had little emotional resonance for me.
“My dad has nothing to do with how I practice law,” the younger Stone argues to Robinette at one point, but he doth protest too much as the hero of a show designed to evoke memories of the original whenever possible.
But copying the structure isn’t the same as copying the spirit, and it’s there that Justice is probably going to be more satisfying to Chicago fans than Law & Order fans. L&O was slavishly formulaic, but it was also clever and surprising and morally thorny. Chicago Justice, on the other hand, feels like comfort food in the same way the other Chicago series have when I’ve sampled them, with all the narrative and ethical complexity smoothed out just enough that you won’t miss anything if a sock-sorting problem becomes surprisingly difficult while you watch.
The story in Sunday’s episode is ripped from the Freddie Gray case in Baltimore, involving a criminal who appears to have died from injuries sustained when a cop gave him a rough ride in the back of his vehicle, but it never really takes the idea anywhere interesting or surprising. (Even the twist at the end seems much more about servicing the needs of Chicago P.D. than about delivering a shock to the audience.) Winchester can do morally sketchy quite well, but Stone is presented as much more of a straight arrow than either his dad or the many L&O prosecutors who followed him; the Robinette scenes suggest Peter has in some way disappointed Ben, but Ben pulled some awfully shady stunts over the years in pursuit of convictions.
It’s that sanding off of the edges, as much as my lack of interest in the cameos from other Chicago characters, that has me unlikely to be a regular Chicago Justice viewer. But I’m not gonna lie: When Paul Robinette shook the hand of Ben Stone’s son, my heart was flooded with nostalgic joy. That’s not enough to set up a season pass, but maybe enough to set a recording for when Anita Van Buren or Abbie Carmichael or even Tony Profaci somehow wind up in a Chicago courtroom.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org