Coming from the man behind the long-running Law & Order franchise — which has spawned four spin-offs since the mothership's 1990 debut — it should come as no surprise that the Dick Wolf-produced Chicago Fire would meet a similar fate. However, showrunner Matt Olmstead admits he didn't see it coming.
"It's funny," he tells TVGuide.com. "If we would have started out thinking that we were going to spin off Jason Beghe's character into a show, we probably wouldn't have made him so dirty. He wouldn't have gone that far because it would have been like, 'Oh we have to protect the lead for our new show.' But we didn't know, so we just put the pedal to the metal."
When Chicago P.D. starts its beat Wednesday at 10/9c on NBC, it will be under the lead of Beghe's Sgt. Hank Voight, the ethically questionable (read: shady) cop who clashed with Casey (Jesse Spencer) over a drunk-driving incident for which Voight's son was responsible. Early in Chicago Fire's first season, Voight repeatedly tried to get Casey to sweep his son's indiscretion under the rug and even tried to have Casey murdered when he didn't comply (for which Voight was later arrested).
Although a spin-off may have seemed like a non-starter, Olmstead credits the casting of both Beghe and Jon Seda, who plays Voight's more honorable partner Antonio Dawson, for planting the seeds for the spin-off. "[Dick Wolf] has a pretty steady hand when it comes to this stuff and then, also, I think that the P.D. of it all presented itself because of the casting of Jason Beghe for Voight and Jon Seda for Antonio Dawson," Olmstead says. "We saw them on their feet, and I think that started to open people's eyes in terms of we need more of them, so we brought them back. It just kind of gained momentum from there."
Olmstead admits he and his team knew it would be a "challenge" to craft a spin-off for Chicago Fire after just one season, but the biggest heavy lifting happened when it came time to mold Voight into a (semi) suitable leading man. "We knew going in that the worst thing that we can do is all of a sudden grind it in reverse and have him do a Toys for Tots fundraiser," Olmstead says. "You never really know: Is he going to pull back on somebody or is he going to shake their hand? And we've embraced it."
The show did that by revealing in the May backdoor pilot episode that Voight was actually working deep cover for Internal Affairs and only acts like a dirty cop to catch the bad guys — a piece of information that opened Voight up to new interpretation. "How long has he been working for them? Has that been longstanding? Is that the deal that got him out of prison? Was it before that?" Olmstead says. "As opposed to a straight dirty cop who's just out there partying and chasing women and filling his pockets with cash, in Voight's mind, 'I do what I do to defend the city of Chicago.'"
Beghe has embraced Voight's moral ambiguity as well. "He knows what he's supposed to do, but he does what he has to, and he doesn't have to justify it. If he has to crack a head, he doesn't back off if it's going to save a life," he says. "Everybody's got a white hat somewhere in their closet, I imagine, and there's days where it's dirtier than others."
Voight's do-whatever-it-takes mentality set the tone for the rest of his intelligence unit, which includes his partner Antonio, Det. Erin Lindsay (Sophia Bush), Det. Jay Halstead (Jesse Lee Soffer), Officer Adam Ruzak (Patrick John Flueger), as well as the show itself. "It was only through how bold and audacious that character was that made it a little bit of a different cop show so it was an interesting kind of trick that was played, but not intentionally," Olmstead says. "We intentionally embraced the idea of a unit that is a little more aggressive, more street-level, which has been a boon for us."
But don't expect everyone on the team to play the game just like Voight. "[Hank] is smart enough to know that a team made up of Voight, Antonio, Halstead, Lindsay, Ruzak is a lot stronger than a team made up of Voight, Voight, Voight, Voight and Voight," Beghe says.
The darker tone set by Voight has not only helped the show set itself apart from Chicago Fire, but also Wolf's inescapable cop procedural Law & Order and its successors. "We felt that we can't have [Voight] all of a sudden be in a suit, tie and overcoat and walk up to a crime scene with a notepad and pencil and say, 'Where were you on the night of the 15th?'" Olmstead says. "They catch a little bit more of a wide range of cases. It's not just a dead body in the beginning and following the bread crumbs until you solve the case by the end."
So just how much will Chicago P.D. and Chicago Fire have in common? Olmstead promises that the two will share "some" DNA, such as more serialized personal arcs for the character — a big step away from Wolf's past shows. But more importantly, the two series will frequently share cast members. Beghe, Seda and Soffer all have enjoyed arcs on Fire, and Fire star Monica Raymund appears in the second episode of P.D. as Antonio's younger sister. "It's something that kind of fell in our laps as a real asset. Opposed to a cop show spinning off from a cop show, where how often are two cops going to interact, it's actually perfectly teed up because you have fire and paramedic first responding to an incident, then detectives would take over and investigate," Olmstead says. "Having these relationships that can bridge both shows is interesting."
However, these crossovers won't be all business. Olmstead says the writers have been exploring the possibility of pairing up Fire's Severide (Taylor Kinney) and P.D.'s Lindsay thanks in large part to the "chemistry" they share. "It's a little bit of an algebra problem in terms of looking when the shows air and what's going on in that person's life on that show because they'll be on back-to-back nights," Olmstead says. "But it really is a good problem to have, and we're exploring it for sure."
Chicago P.D. premieres on Wednesday at 10/9c on NBC.