Three US actors – Dylan McDermott, Tracy Spiridakos and Ainsley Seiger – give DQ an insight into joining and working within the shared television universes of three of TV’s biggest series franchises: Law & Order, Chicago and FBI.
When US network CBS pulled together all three of its FBI series to create its Imminent Threat storyline, it was the latest example of a broadcaster seizing the opportunity to create event television by uniting the stars of one of its biggest franchises.
The story follows three intrepid teams working together when the abduction of an American citizen in Rome reveals an international plot to carry out a mass-casualty terror attack in New York City.
The April event certainly got people talking, with an average of more than six million viewers tuning in across the night to follow the action from FBI: International, to FBI and then FBI: Most Wanted.
It was the second CBS crossover event for the three FBI series, the first of which marked the launch of FBI: International in September 2021. It was also the first FBI crossover event for Dylan McDermott, who joined the cast of FBI: Most Wanted as Special Agent Remy Scott at the start of its third season last year.
However, it’s not the first time the actor has appeared in a crossover event. He also had a guest starring role in Law & Order: Organized Crime that led to an appearance in one episode of sister series Law & Order: SVU.
Aside from the superhero team-ups that created the Arrowverse – Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl et al on The CW – crossovers are becoming an increasingly common occurrence thanks to the number of procedural series on US television built around the same government agency or city location.
Notably, veteran producer Dick Wolf is behind three such franchises, Law & Order, FBI and One Chicago, which account for a total of nine different series: Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU and Law & Order: Organized Crime; FBI, FBI: International and FBI: Most Wanted; and Chicago Fire, Chicago PD and Chicago Med.
“Dick Wolf has a universe, much like the Marvel universe, so you can go to these different shows as a character,” McDermott tells DQ. “Now I’ve played a couple of characters in that universe, so it’s kind of fun to jump around.”
Is he now looking at appearing in the Chicago series to complete the set? “I’ve been thinking about it,” he jokes. “Maybe I’ll get burned as a fireman, and have to go to the hospital to go on Chicago Med, and then they’ll find out I was a criminal and I’ll go on Chicago PD.”
Revolution star Tracy Spiridakos has similarly starred in several Wolf Entertainment-produced franchises, but playing the same character. She joined Chicago PD as Detective Hailey Upton in 2017, at the start of season five, and has subsequently appeared in the same role in Chicago Fire and Chicago Med.
“I was fortunate enough to get to play over on FBI as well, which was really cool, getting to meet those actors,” she says of the 2020 crossover that saw her character move between Wolf series – notably on different networks, with the FBI dramas airing on CBS. “Doing such a big crossover was such an incredible experience, and it was fun. We’re all really close on PD and it’s a big family. We all tease each other all day long. And getting to go over to another set and work with other actors, it’s a different muscle.
“I get pretty shy, so you feel like it’s the first day of school again. You’re the new kid but everyone’s always so great bringing you in and making you feel comfortable. It’s getting to be part of one show but then you get to dabble in the other ones. It’s a really cool experience.”
With NBC home to six Wolf series and CBS on board with the FBI shows, three nights of the US television schedules are dedicated to his shows, each following the traditional procedural model. But while the number of these series – and their crossovers – might seem off-putting to viewers unfamiliar with the characters, both McDermott and Spiridakos enjoy the chance to move across to different shows and believe fans like seeing their favourite characters in new environments too.
“The fans love it, they like to see new interactions and characters in the same world collide. So as long as the fans love it, it’s obviously a good thing,” McDermott says.
“I kind of love it,” Spiridakos continues. “It really brings the universe to life when you know you’re going to have the doctor from Chicago Med work and interact with everybody. It makes you feel like you’re submerged in that world. You can do so many different stories within that as well. Doing crossover episodes adds an extra layer, bringing in a new character the fans already know so they can then develop a relationship with another character and it just adds to the richness of the whole thing.”
McDermott and Spiridakos were both speaking at the Monte Carlo Television Festival, before the ongoing actors’ strike in the US, where Law & Order: Organized Crime star Ainsley Seiger also described how exciting it was to know she was joining a show that was also part of a bigger shared universe.
“I knew it was a possibility I would be able to work on SVU and I knew it was a possibility I would be able to work on the mothership [Law & Order] and be able to work with a lot of actors I had been watching on TV since I was born, basically,” says the actor. Law & Order: Organized Crime marked Seiger’s television debut in 2021, leading to appearances in Law & Order and Law & Order: SVU.
“It presents a really exciting opportunity for you as an actor to glean information from all sorts of different people in the industry, all sorts of different actors. This is the only job I’ve ever had and yet I’ve been on three different sets on Law & Order, so I’ve seen different ways people collaborate, and the way they make it is different to the way we make it.
“My biggest piece of insight is when you combine these three individually very massive shows, it’s such a large undertaking from a logistical standpoint, from a scheduling standpoint, that there are so many things that have to fall into place for even one day of them together to happen. There are so many characters in all three of these shows and everyone needs to get a piece of the pie.”
Seiger stars in the world of Law & Order as Jet Slootmaekers, a former hacker who is recruited to the Organized Crime Control Bureau on the recommendation of former SVU lead Elliot Stabler (Christopher Meloni), who heads the team.
“When I auditioned for the show and I sent in my self-tape audition, I didn’t want to be the average computer-geeky antisocial character, and she does fall into those tropes and stereotypes in a way,” Seiger says.
“But the fun of being an actor is figuring out how to divert them a little bit and how to surprise people. One of the things that’s most surprising about Jet and the thing that helps propel her character out of those stereotypes is the gradual progression of her relationship with [Danielle Moné Truitt’s character Sergeant Ayanna] Bell and Stabler, and the fact she used to be this lone-wolf character and she’s grown to trust them, care about them and be able to work with them as a team, as opposed to just looking out for herself all the time. That aspect of connecting with other people has helped Jet not become this quippy, one-liner trope as a character.”
A classically trained actor, Seiger was used to spending “weeks and weeks” of rehearsal time leading up to a theatre performance. But showing up for the first day on Organized Crime couldn’t have been more different, particularly when it came to the pace of making a single episode of the series.
“I just remember it was going by so quickly and I was so scared the entire first season that I would be fired at any moment,” says the star. “Being prepared is the most important thing, because I hate to get to set and feel like I’m wasting anybody’s time. But you get used to it after a while. I also really enjoy how much it forces you to stay on your feet and how quickly you have to adapt to certain scenarios. If we’re in a space that’s different from what they imagined or we don’t have the prop available that was written into the script, you have to improvise and everyone has to come together as a team. I really like that.”
A day on FBI: Most Wanted for McDermott starts when he wakes up at 3.30am. After travelling to the set, he’s in hair and make-up by 6am and ready for filming an hour later, working until 7pm that evening. He’s home by 8pm and “then it begins again,” he jokes. “That’s the glamour.
“You have to learn your lines for that day and there’s another script coming so you have to learn those lines on the weekend. You never really have any downtime because you’re always working. You have to show up, you have to be good, you have to know your stuff, you have to be on time. That’s 10 months out of the year. You really have to be so disciplined to do this particular job.”
“It’s intense, for sure,” agrees Spiridakos. “We do eight-day episodes and double-ups as the schedule progresses. But you’re not always featured in every episode. And if you’re featured in one episode, most of the time you’re not really featured in the next episode, so that’s how we get our time off and balance it that way. I had to learn over the years how to find good balance and make sure to take a bit of time to hang out with friends and family.”
Though the ongoing writer and actor strikes in the US have delayed production on new episodes for 2023/24, FBI: Most Wanted is set to return for its fifth season and Law & Order: Organized Crime will have a fourth season, while Chicago PD is back for its landmark 11th season.
Not all Dick Wolf series have been huge hits – Law & Order spin-offs LA and Trial by Jury were both cancelled after one season – but when they hit their stride, the blend of compelling cases, dramatic personal stories and a case-of-the-week format adds up to a satisfying hour of television viewers keep coming back to.
“It’s the Wolf formula, the Wolf magic,” McDermott says of the success of the FBI franchise. “I just think people enjoy the whole FBI world. There’s a satisfaction they get in tracking down the bad guys.”
“His focus is in the writing,” notes Spiridakos. “There are so many great writers on all the teams on all the shows who have a great way of bringing all the stories together while also being their own individual thing. His idea of having this big world is still this cool thing where he had this genius idea of doing crossovers with everybody and everybody interacting in each other’s universes. That was also another really cool, unique approach to storytelling on television.”
However, McDermott thinks Wolf’s world-building franchises might be the last of their kind.
“You won’t see this again. You won’t see the 22-episode season. I think we are the dinosaurs now,” he observes. “You’ll probably see shortened seasons of maybe 18 episodes, but the model of the 22-episode arc will probably be the Dick Wolf of it all. After that, the landscape of television is seven episodes, 10 episodes – and what exactly is going to happen to network television? The numbers keep shrinking. The only things that are really doing well are these Dick Wolf shows. He owns Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night in America. I hit it at the right time, because I don’t know if you’ll see it anymore.”