'North Woods Law' on hold, but production company hopes to return

·5 min read

Sep. 23—New episodes of "North Woods Law" are on hold while a major media merger plays out, but the production company is hopeful it will be able to resume filming of the popular show about New Hampshire's conservation officers.

The show has been in limbo since a merger between AT&T's WarnerMedia unit and Discovery Inc. was completed in April, according to Steven Engel, president and executive producer of New York-based Engel Entertainment. The combined company, Warner Bros. Discovery, owns the show, which Engel Entertainment films and edits.

"We hope there will be new episodes," he said Thursday in a phone interview. Discussions with Warner Bros. Discovery are set to resume later this year.

Other productions have been delayed amid the merger as well, including Mel Gibson's "Lethal Weapon 5." Some, such as "Batgirl," filmed for $100 million and set to air on HBO Max, were axed altogether.

A spokesman for Warner Bros. Discovery did not return a phone call and email Thursday seeking comment.

"North Woods Law," which started filming in Maine in 2012 and switched to New Hampshire in 2017, is one of the longest-running programs of its kind, Engel said. A spinoff, Texas-based "Lone Star Law," is also filmed by Engel and airs on Animal Planet.

"North Woods Law" features the diverse work of New Hampshire's conservation officers, from rescuing lost hikers to capturing injured animals and taking them to rehabilitation specialists.

The show's 16th season, which returned last summer, featured a terrifying ATV crash in which Conservation Officer Matt Holmes was struck by a speeding off-road vehicle in Dummer while checking speed with radar. The episode aired on Sept. 26, 2021.

In all, nine seasons have been filmed in New Hampshire.

Ready to roll again

Col. Kevin Jordan, law enforcement chief for New Hampshire Fish and Game, said he would welcome the film crew back at any time.

"It certainly promoted the state and the department, and those are two of the goals that we had," he said.

Jordan said the program showed the viewers the challenges that conservation officers and wildlife biologists face while doing their jobs with limited resources. It helped, when presenting the budget to the Legislature, to be able to give elected leaders a behind-the-scenes look at the work being done on a daily basis, especially when it came to search and rescue missions, he said.

Some of the officers became "superstars" because of their personalities and how they treated people on the show, the colonel said. In fact, he had to be lenient toward some of the officers who broke policies while in action.

"I would get emails from as far away as Australia commenting on what they saw on the show," he said.

The department also saw a boost in its recruitment efforts thanks to the program, with a number of recent candidates saying it got them interested in the line of work. The show also promoted tourism in the state, including hiking and snowmobiling.

Episodes involving wildlife always caught viewers' attention. One episode last season featured Conservation Officer Chris McKee on a multi-day chase to rescue a goose with a plastic six-pack ring around its neck.

Under the contract, Fish and Game officials had the right to view the footage and say yes or no to what made it into the final cut.

"We wanted to keep it geared toward a family-type show," Jordan said. "And I think we did that very well based on the feedback I got from the public."

The show did have moments of tragedy. The first episode included the drowning of Justin Smith, 34, of Colebrook.

'Law' makes news

Jordan said the filming had few problems, though a lawsuit over one episode made it all the way to the state Supreme Court.

In a 2018 show titled "Weed Whackers," Dale and Anne Mansfield of New Durham were questioned about a patch of marijuana plants growing near their home. Although their faces were blurred in the footage that ran, they sued because they had not signed a release giving the production company permission to use their images. The court sided with "North Woods Law."

Sometimes video from the show was used as evidence in court cases.

Jordan said one of the biggest highlights in the show's run was when the department's dive team found a pickup truck in the Androscoggin River in Errol containing the remains of Tony Imondi, 26, of Errol. Imondi was last seen at a horseshoe tournament in town on July 1, 1998.

Viewers took a liking to K-9 Ruby, a black Lab, who joined the department in 2012, partnering with Lt. Bill Boudreau. But Ruby had to be put to sleep at the age of 8 after becoming ill. The show featured the training of other dogs, such as Fin, a chocolate Lab who partners with Ken St. Pierre.

Engel, who grew up in New England, said he loved filming the show in New Hampshire. Part of the original goal was to get people to respect nature and be prepared when venturing out, he said.

"It helps people learn how to be better stewards and how to hunt and fish properly," he said.

The company would have one or two crews filming at a time. They'd spend a couple of days with each officer, Engel said.

"It's not like filming 'Law & Order,'" he said. "The crew is small. They are nimble. They are very fit. They are going up the mountains and going out on the water."

He most liked the officers' approach to law enforcement and the empathy they showed to both animals and people.

The first season drew an average of 1.1 million viewers.

"It's entertaining," Engel said. "The ratings have always been really good."

jphelps@unionleader.com