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NBC's 'Crisis' casts Chicago as D.C. stand-in

Power, parenting set the scene on 'Crisis,' NBC's new series, filmed on the city's West Side and in Lake Forest

By Courtney Crowder

Tribune reporter

12:18 PM CDT, March 14, 2014

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"Kill the kid!"

Dermot Mulroney, in character as ex-CIA analyst Thomas Gibson, is barking orders to a group of people, some standing, some hunched over computers, in a small green- and yellow-tiled kitchen set on a soundstage in the West Side's Cinespace Chicago Film Studios. From Mulroney's frenzied tone, one can deduce that something has gone very wrong for Gibson.

"Wait, his parents did as I asked," he says, letting a cooler head prevail. "We got in that room. They did what I asked."

Mulroney and his fellow actors rehearsed this scene, a pivotal moment in the second episode of NBC's upcoming thriller series "Crisis," for more than an hour. At one point, the episode's director, Mark Piznarski, stopped to go over characterization and intention with Mulroney.

"That scene is showing my character's volatility and his ability to recover from an unexpected turn," Mulroney said later, taking a break from rehearsal. "In several of the episodes, you will see (Gibson's) plan break down or not play out quite like he (wants), so he will have to get his master plan back on track."

"Crisis," which premieres Sunday, is set in Washington, D.C., despite being filmed almost entirely in Chicago. (The pilot was shot in LA.) The show's creator, Rand Ravich, said the Chicago area was selected partly because security concerns make it next to impossible to shoot in Washington.

"We needed a city that had a real monumental feel," Ravich said during a recent phone interview. "A governmental, monumental backing and feel of square corners, marble and cement, and you don't get that in many places in this country, and Chicago has it. … Except for the subarctic climate, it was the perfect place for us to film."

The series centers on the quest to find a group of kidnapped high schoolers. These are not ordinary kids, however; they are the scions of some of the capital's most important people, with the president's son in the group. After the group is taken, the United States military uses everything they have — drones, tracking devices, their best agents — to try to find the kids.

But the bad guys are always one step ahead of them.

"It's a chase story," Mulroney said. "The show crosses several genres, but one that it's firmly in is the find-the-bad-guy chase genre. You know who the bad guy is; you just can't catch him."

Mulroney stars in "Crisis" with Gillian Anderson, best known for her role as Dana Scully on "The X-Files," and Rachael Taylor, who appeared in "Transformers" and "Grey's Anatomy." Anderson plays Meg Fitch, the uber-powerful leader of an international IT corporation and the parent of one of the kidnapped children. Taylor portrays Susie Dunn, an FBI agent assigned to the case and Fitch's estranged sister.

The kernel of "Crisis" came out of Ravich's work on a show that never made it to air about Navy SEALs and their families, he said. While researching for that project, Ravich and his writing partner, Far Shariat, became interested in the intricacies of Washington's intelligence community.

"We found that there is this tremendous convergence between politics and power and families in the intelligence community, and that makes for a great confluence of emotion and drama surrounding all those families that are around that locus of power," he said.

The show's pilot suffers a bit from the necessary evil of exposition, and some of the teenagers' dialogue sounds like an adult writing in teenager speak, but the series is explosive from the beginning, putting the action-thriller part of the story firmly in the driver's seat.

"I always wanted to have action drive this story, but I also wanted to tell it through the emotional point of view of parents and their children," Ravich said.

Indeed, from the series' first two episodes, the central kidnapping mystery propels the story forward, but close to equal weight is given to revealing each character's inner turmoil as they all jockey for power and control in, well, a crisis.

The series' central question — "What would you do for your child?" — is especially intriguing considering these parents have the ability to launch missiles or acquire millions of untraceable dollars.

"The show is going to explore heroic choices," Ravich said. "The driving tension will come from choices like do you put love above country? Do you put your child above the nation? Do you put your husband or wife above the law?"

Back on set, Anderson arrives to shoot a short scene, and it feels like a good friend finally walking into a party. Cries of "Gillian!" go up, and hugs are distributed all around.

A little while later, sitting near the set, Anderson called Meg Fitch "one of the more intensely powerful characters" she's ever played.

"I think all the women that I've played, a lot of them, have been quite damaged and some of them not particularly healthy," she said. "I have never played a character like (Meg) before. She is very outspoken and brash, and that was not Scully. … Meg is in your face."

Meg's counterpoint is Taylor's Agent Dunn, who's emotionally closed almost to the point of being unfeeling. Taylor described Dunn as a woman doing what she must in a masculine world.

"She's young, and she has had to fight pretty hard to make her way up the food chain in the FBI," Taylor said during a recent phone interview. "As you see in the pilot, she's also harboring a very distracting secret (that) she's very much tried to ignore and put behind her."

The character of Susie is "a break from the traditional idea of a female career woman who is trying desperately to juggle family and maternity with her career," she continued. "Susie is not really in touch with her maternal side at all, and I think that is kind of interesting. … She's a dark little thing."

"Crisis," which has been shooting in Chicago for almost eight months, wrapped filming on Season 1 on March 7. Ravich, who resides in LA, said he plans to view Sunday's premiere from the comfort of his living room couch, relishing a well-deserved respite with family.

"I have been away in Chicago for a while, so I will be at home watching TV," he said.

"Oh, and I won't TiVo through the commercials," he added with a laugh.

cocrowder@tribune.com | Twitter: @courtneycare

'Crisis'

9 p.m. Sunday, NBC