“The episodes are based on real crime headlines”: Meet the showrunner behind the new Law & Order Toronto

“The episodes are based on real crime headlines”: Meet the showrunner behind the new Law & Order Toronto

Tassie Cameron dishes on potential plot points, shooting in city hall after hours and whether Drake will make a cameo appearance

Tassie Cameron, the show runner of Toronto's new Law & Ordere franchise

In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups—and soon, Canadian audiences will get to see both of them on the new Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent. The sanctioned spin-off of the beloved Dick Wolf franchise is currently shooting all over the city and taking inspiration from IRL Canadian crimes. Tassie Cameron—the veteran behind Rookie Blue and Flashpoint—wrote the pilot and joined the project as showrunner last year. She says the Law & Order powers-that-be are choosy when it comes to expanding their franchise, but Toronto was an undeniable fit: distinct neighbourhoods, a diverse population and, yes, a seedy underworld. Here, Cameron dishes on how the franchise came to be and hints at what viewers may see when they tune in to its release in spring 2024.

This may be the most exciting Toronto TV announcement since the now-cancelled Degrassi reboot. How did you get involved?
The project had been in the works for a couple of years before I signed on. It’s the brainchild of Hayden Mindell, who’s a VP at Rogers. He started talking with Erin Haskett at Lark Entertainment, which is a production company in Vancouver, and they cooked this up together: a Law & Order franchise shot in Toronto, for Torontonians, and one that’s proudly Canadian. At some point, they realized that it would be a good idea to have a Toronto production partner. I run Cameron Pictures along with my sister Amy, and they approached me about writing the pilot episode. I started writing in January of this year, and we were green-lit for production in June.

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How difficult was it to get the blessing of Law & Order overlord Dick Wolf?
By the time I got involved, they had already had a lot of those conversations, and there was a strong possibility that the financing, team and script would come together. I do know that they are very protective of their franchise, for good reason. I am pretty sure that Law & Order Toronto is the first original franchise that they’ve done outside of the US. There was a Law & Order UK, but that was adapted from the American series.

Were other Canadian locations considered? Law & Order Vancouver? Or Law & Order Burnaby?
I would love to work on Law & Order Burnaby. But no, Rogers was always very clear that they wanted to do the first Canadian series in Toronto. It’s the biggest city in the country, and its many neighbourhoods, plus the variety of people who live here, lend themselves beautifully to portraying different types of crimes. This is very much a location-based show. Within Toronto, you can walk into Chinatown, Little India, a tower on Bay Street, an incredible mansion in Rosedale. And the city itself has been very cooperative. We actually got permission to shoot in council chambers in city hall, which was surprising. We were able to go in after hours.

Plus we have crime!
Yes. It’s funny because people have this certain impression of Toronto—the whole idea that we’re so nice. Jimmy Kimmel made a joke about the new Law & Order Toronto a couple of weeks ago: “Do you plead sorry or not sorry?”

Whomp whomp.
Right. Contrary to popular belief, we have a lot of material to work with. There are also some things about the Canadian system that are different, and it’s interesting to look at those nuances. In the court scenes, for example, our background players are in legal robes. You would never see that in the US version. Also, in Canada, you don’t automatically have the right to an attorney at your interrogation. I was really surprised by that, but it’s a misconception many of us picked up from watching American television.

You mentioned writing the pilot. Can you tell me what to expect, or would you have to kill me? And then we could be our very own Law & Order Toronto plot!
That sounds like a good one. I can say that, in one of our episodes, there is a story involving two reporters and an editor from Toronto Life magazine, which is pretty cool. And, as I mentioned, there are city hall hijinks. All ten of the episodes in the first season are based on headlines that a lot of people will recognize.

Like, “Billionaire couple, famous Jewish philanthropists, found brutally murdered in their own home”?
Right. But then we’ll take the story in a totally different direction. We’re not making docu-dramas. We’ll start with a true crime headline, but from there we’re fictionalizing.

So no hints then?
It’s fun to see people speculating about this, so I don’t want to spoil it. But, okay, I will tell you one thing: the pilot starts on a boat.

Why Criminal Intent and not SVU? Or just plain old Law & Order?
The difference with the Criminal Intent franchise is that, right from the opening teaser, you cut away to the criminals’ point of view.  That continues throughout the episode, even while we maintain the mystery of who the criminal is. We really dig in to the psychological part of a crime—the whydunit as much as the whodunit. Overall it ends up being less law, more order, meaning more of the police hunting for the guilty person.

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Are you a fan of the true crime genre as a viewer or listener?
I love true crime. I loved The Staircase, the original documentary series, and obviously Serial. Lately my daughter and I have been watching Only Murders in the Building, which is not true crime, but the fact that you can make a successful true-crime satire speaks to the popularity of the genre. One of my favourite parts of working on Law & Order has been the research that we got to do into different cases. My mom, Stevie Cameron, was a crime reporter until she retired. She wrote the definitive book on the Pickton murders and covered all sorts of crime—from political scandals to serial killers. Those were the topics we talked about around our dinner table, and it ignited my own interest in crime.

What do you make of the criticism around the genre? Basically that there’s something gross about exploiting human suffering for entertainment.
I’ve actually been thinking about that a lot lately, asking myself, Is what we’re doing okay? I think the answer is that this kind of content helps people process the horrible things that do happen in the world. Of course, it’s important to think about the way these stories are told and how victims are represented. We were very intentional about the headlines we picked and didn’t pick.

For example?
We didn’t include the Bruce McArthur murders, which are very complicated and involve a lot of systemic issues and errors made by the police. We didn’t want to get into that before the audience knows and trusts our characters. Maybe in a future season.

Were you a big Law & Order fan before you booked this gig?
For as long as I can remember. I loved the original, and getting to go back and rewatch so many seasons in preparation for this job has been such a pleasure.

All-time favourite cast member?
I have a soft spot for the original with Jerry Orbach. Maybe because it felt so new and exciting the first time. I also didn’t know I was going to be a TV writer yet, so I was watching just for the fun of it.

There is so much TV to watch these days. What is it about Law & Order that endures?
I think part of it is that the audience knows they can come to any episode without having seen the one before, and then they don’t have to watch the next one. Particularly with Criminal Intent, these really are mini movies. They each stand alone. That’s not to say that we don’t have characters who will develop over episodes, but it’s not something you have to keep up with religiously to enjoy.

You mentioned the series being proudly Canadian, which is a change from the days when Toronto was always appearing on TV disguised as New York or Chicago.
It has always been important to me to feature Canada in the work that I do. These days, the trend in television is to be very specific in terms of location and culture, so we’re not disguising anything.

Is Olivia Chow the mayor on the show?
No. We’re in a slightly hybrid, alternate political universe, but I think a lot of the players will feel familiar.

Drake cameo: yea or nay?
Ha, no. Not this season.

Your cast is entirely Canadian. Did the SAG-AFTRA strike have anything to do with that?
We always knew we wanted a Canadian cast, and the actors we landed with are absolutely amazing. I worked with Karen Robinson before, when we were both on Pretty Hard Cases, but the rest were new to me. Aden Young and Kathleen Munroe play our two lead detectives. I was watching them work on lines over lunch the other day, and it’s like they’ve been partners for 20 years.

A veritable Benson and Stabler.
That chemistry is very much at the heart of these franchises. I think we’ve got it covered.

Okay, last and most important question—will Law & Order Toronto feature the signature “dun-dun” sound?
One thousand per cent. There will be as many dun-duns as we can get in there. Plus we’ll have the classic opening credits song.

I’ve got goosebumps!
It’s really thrilling to watch a cut and hear that famous opening. It’s going to be amazing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.