June 18, 2024

Obligate Law

Professional Law Makers

With Law & Order spinoff, Toronto finally gets its big break — as itself

6 min read
With Law & Order spinoff, Toronto finally gets its big break — as itself

Fans of crime procedurals take note: Canada’s Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent, a spinoff of the popular U.S. franchise debuts Feb. 22.

The series, which has Canadian directors and is shot in Canada, stars actors Kathleen Munroe, Aden Young and Karen Robinson (Of Schitt’s Creek fame.)

Executive producer Erin Haskett says the show has been in the works for years, but it took some convincing that it could be done on budget with Canadian talent. Rogers calls the show its “biggest investment in Canadian original programming” to date.

She says that within the many franchises produced by Dick Wolf, there are numerous Canadian directors working on episodes of shows like FBI and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

“And also, you look at the cast and there’s a lot of Canadians there,” Haskett said. “So I think, in a way, they knew we had the talent pool.”

WATCH | Toronto gets its big break with new Law & Order spinoff: 

Toronto set to play itself in latest Law & Order franchise

The latest series in the crime and punishment franchise, Law & Order, premieres Thursday and has a Canadian twist. After portraying New York, Chicago and a number of other U.S. cities, Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent will show Canada’s largest city as one of the main characters — CN Tower and Toronto sign included.

Fewer guns, sensitive scripts 

The 10-episode series pulls its weekly stories from Canadian headlines and was shot across the GTA, including at an Etobicoke soundstage that recreated Toronto Police Service headquarters, a morgue, an apartment, legal offices and more.

“Our first episode, we were shooting in Little India. We were shooting in Chinatown. We were shooting at the Yacht Club,” said Munroe, who plays Detective Sergeant Frankie Bateman. 

Canadian Sharon Lewis has directed episodes of Law & Order: Organized Crime and was tapped to direct an episode of the Toronto series this year. 

She says there are a few big differences between the Law & Order shows based in New York and the one in Toronto.

“Toronto crews are much warmer, but it’s the guns. Guns — just less guns in Toronto, less stories that are centred around guns,” said Lewis. “It’s that we’re a softer, kinder city, I think, than the more abrasive New York.”

That Canadian sensibility is reflected in scripts, as well, Lewis said, adding the show isn’t looking to glorify officers breaking down doors.

“As a Black woman, I was like, ‘How am I gonna navigate this Law & Order sort of thing, given everything that’s gone on with police sensitivity?’ I think that’s what’s changed in the scripts,” she said. “There’s a sensitivity to navigate how police interact and what they look like.”

Aside from fewer guns and a more sensitive depiction of policing, fans should expect the same things they always find in Law & Order franchises: sharp dialogue, two partners with good chemistry, familiar crime stories (usually with a twist) and a lesson about the ins and outs of the justice system.

Munroe’s character, Bateman, is a by-the-books detective paired with Young’s Detective Sergeant Henry Graff, who’s more interested in why people do things than the legal process. Robinson plays their boss, Inspector Vivienne Holness.

An image shows actress Karen Robinson on set of Law and Order in a blue suit, standing in an office with her hands on her hips.
The new crime procedural spinoff also stars Karen Robinson, of Schitt’s Creek fame, as Inspector Vivienne Holness. (Amanda Matlovich/CityTV)

Munroe is also no stranger to the Dick Wolf universe — she’s appeared on other shows from the American producer, including Law & Order: Organized Crime and FBI.

“I grew up watching Law & Order. It was a part of the fabric of my culture as a kid. And it’s also, I think, how I was introduced to New York as a city,” said Munroe, who grew up in Hamilton and Toronto.

“I think it’s nice to see this happening at a time when Canadian content that is really, really uniquely Canadian is also being celebrated.” 

Made in Canada 

Canadian-shot content is hot right now.

In December, Amazon’s Reacher was the top streamed TV show in the world, according to Nielsen data. And while Reacher is set in a fictional town in Georgia, it’s shot in various Ontario locations, including Kingston, Port Perry, Pickering and Toronto.  

The mega-popular series The Last of Us is set in the U.S., but shot Canada, including locations in Calgary, Edmonton and British Columbia. Fargo, the anthology series based on the Coen Brothers movie of the same name, is set in various cities and towns in the U.S., but is mostly shot in Calgary. 

Canadian cities have also starred in some of the biggest blockbusters in Hollywood, but they rarely play themselves in movies and TV.

For example, parts of the $2.1-billion epic Titanic were shot in Halifax, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End used shots from Niagara Falls, and Good Will Hunting, the popular 1997 drama that banked $225 million sometimes used Toronto as a stand-in for Boston.

WATCH | CBC’s Eli Glasner visits the set of Law & Order Toronto: 

Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent episodes to be based on real Canadian headlines

The latest spinoff in the Law & Order series of TV crime dramas is set and shot north of the border with a nearly all-Canadian cast and crew, and will feature some Canadian crime headlines as inspiration.

Canada finally plays itself

Bryn Garrison was one of the location managers for Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent and said the job was a rare opportunity to show Toronto just as it is — and not worry about filming away from or around the CN Tower. 

“I think if anything, we were surprised by just how well Toronto shoots when you can just really go no-holds-barred and put the camera wherever you wanted to,” he said.

That meant he was finally able to showcase the CN Tower, the Scotiabank Arena and a variety of other iconic Toronto locations that Canadians recognize, but are often hidden or disguised when Toronto is playing the part of another city.

Toronto Film Commissioner Marguerite Pigott says while it’s true that large-scale, global productions often disguise the city as New York, Chicago or Washington, D.C., more films and television shows are allowing Toronto to play itself.

She points to Pixar’s 2022 animated feature Turning Red, which was based in Toronto and heavily featured the city, as well as three seasons of Bilal Baig’s CBC dramedy Sort Of

A camera is pointed at two people eating at a restaurant with chopsticks on a plate in the foreground and a red dragon painted on the window.
Criminal Intent shot at locations across Toronto, including Polson Pier, city hall, Union Station’s skywalk and the University of Toronto, as well as in neighbourhoods like Lawrence Park, the Junction, Chinatown and Little India. (Amanda Matlovich/Citytv)

Why productions come north

Though Toronto is sometimes called “Hollywood North,” Pigott doesn’t see it that way. 

“Hollywood doesn’t think of us as Hollywood North, they think of us as Toronto,” she said. “They come here for the talent. They come here for the locations. They come here for the capacity. They come here for the incentives, for the crew, for the commitment that we’ve made.”

Pigott said there were 18 major productions shooting in Toronto in February 2024, busier than usual for this time of year. 

“Toronto is in the top five production jurisdictions in North America — we’re one of the biggest.” 

Lewis points out that Toronto is the fourth largest city in North America, but doesn’t get the same recognition as New York and Los Angeles.

She views the new Law & Order series as an opportunity to show off Toronto’s multicultural communities and neighbourhoods. “You get to see downtown, you get to see the kind of sleekness, also a little bit of the grittiness.”

Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent debuts on CityTV on Feb. 22. There’s no news yet on if an American distributor will pick up the show for U.S. audiences.

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