Wednesday, February 9, 2011

TV Review: The Chicago Code

"You think you can change how things get done in Chicago?!"

That wasn't the first line of Monday night's premiere of decently-ballyhooed new cop drama The Chicago Code, but it pretty well sums up my feelings about the episode: big ideas, clumsy follow-through.

If you've been paying attention, The Chicago Code is writer-producer Shawn Ryan's latest stab at his own cop show after serving as the showrunner for a couple of shows he didn't create (Fox's Lie to Me, FX's criminally cancelled Terriers). Code follows the efforts of police superintendent Teresa Colvin (Jennifer Beals) and Jarek Wysocki (Jason Clarke) as she tries to rid her city of the corruption that became its hallmark again after Michael Jordan stopped being a thing. When she can't get alderman Ronin Gibbons (frequent Spike Lee collaborator Delroy Lindo) to agree to authorizing funds for a special corruption task force, she decides to form one of her own, with officer Wysocki and his new partner Caleb Evers (Matt Lauria) as basically its only members.

Naturally, she runs afoul of just about everyone in the city, including the lazy cop who uttered the above line after she demoted him. She couldn't outright fire the guy, so she made him the commander of broom handling in a new station, which I thought was a nice touch. It was a moment of subtlety, though, in what was oftentimes an overwrought, clumsily-executed hour of television.

The show has big ideas, and I applaud that; you wouldn't expect any less of a guy with a resume as accomplished as Ryan. It's not simply your standard procedural with Chicago skyscrapers in the background. But what does come as a surprise is the dialogue, which is by turns on-the-nose, stilted, and sometimes just plain awful. The ensemble seems perfectly capable of doing some heavy lifting, and production designer Vincent Peranio (Homicide, The Wire) nicely establishes a mood and tone. So why does Ryan saddle his actors with such horrendous dialogue? "They say Chicago is the city that works," alderman Gibbons tells us, "What some people don't understand is that it works in a lot of different ways." Gah.

Again, the sentiment is good, and Lindo delivers it with gusto. But couldn't the guy who wrote such sublime dialogue for Terriers come up with something a bit more artful? The Chicago Code aspires to be a sharp social critique in the realm of, what else, The Wire, but it seems to be trying to do it in the style of dumb-ass prime time procedurals like CSI and Without a Trace. Shows like those treat their viewers like middle-schoolers, and you can't really deal with big ideas if you're always talking down to your audience.

Put aside what the characters are actually saying (tough, I know), and you've got an hour of television that's pretty solid with occasional flashes of greatness. As a lifelong (suburban) Chicago resident, it's certainly a thrill to see my hometown on the TV box. And, as the local press have reported, there is a ton of Chicago in this show. To put it simply, the show is most definitely "Chicago," but it's "Chicago" the way one of those tacky t-shirt stores is "Chicago." Yeah, Chicago politics are corrupt, and yeah, people argue about the Cubs and the Sox all the time, but not like they do on the show. As the Chicago Reader points out, the corruption is mundane. It's more "fat old guys giving jobs to their fat old guy cousins" and less "hot secretary sucking on her primly dressed boss's ear" (yep, that happens). The Chicago Code needs to get the subtleties right, or it'll be about as authentic as a postcard.

- Photos via Direct Previews and Pop Tower