Part of me wonders if The Powers That Be on FOX’s “The Chicago Code” wouldn’t just as soon get predominantly negative reviews for their midseason drama.
This isn’t going to be one of those “Do critics really matter?” reviews, because the answer to that question is, “Of course critics matter, our voices are clearly the most importantest in all the world and we should remain gainfully employed whether we work on the Internet or on those paper things you can still get in some cities.” Duh.
But as much as Shawn Ryan may have enjoyed reading kindly reviews for FX’s “Terriers” — It made my Top 5 for 2010 and dozens upon dozens of other Top 10 lists — those reviews didn’t exactly bring in the sort of audiences that would get the show a second season on Tulsa Public Access, much less on FX. We miss you, “Terriers.”
And as much as FOX probably appreciated that the last time the network premiered a new drama on Mondays at 9 p.m. after “House,” some critics — myself included — called it the best new network pilot of the fall, not only did it not turn “Lone Star” into a hit, it didn’t get “Lone Star” past two episodes. In theory, we miss you, “Lone Star,” though with only two episodes as a sample size, it’s hard to miss you all that much.
So maybe FOX and Shawn Ryan would appreciate a little reverse psychology? Maybe this would be a perfect opportunity to cover up my true enthusiasms for “The Chicago Code” to write a harsh, negative review. It might make me feel guilty and disingenuous, but I also can’t help but feel that all of the vitriol I spewed about “Harry’s Law” was responsible for making it NBC’s first semi-hit in months, either directly or karmically.
Let’s give this a try:
“The Chicago Code” is pretty much like every cop show out there. The writing isn’t at all distinctive and the use of Windy City locations doesn’t help produce any sort of flavor for the series, which could pretty much be set anywhere. The performances are all forgettable, especially Delroy Lindo, who most certainly isn’t one of the most charismatic small screen villains in some time. I’m definitely not clamoring to see additional episodes of “The Chicago Code,” because it definitely isn’t the best midseason show you’ll see on network TV. Definitely.
Got that, casual TV viewers? This elitist critic says that “Chicago Code” really isn’t the kind of show you’ll like, or at least that’s the view from my jade tower (ivory is so 1995). I’m ever-so-sorry if hearing that makes you suspect it might be exactly the sort of show that you’d love and I’m ever-so-sad that I’m just one man and there’s nothing I can do to prevent you from individually tuning in and drawing your own conclusions. If you’ve gotta tune in and check it out yourself, you’ve gotta do it.
Now I’ll kindly ask those anti-critic casual viewers not to click through for more extended thoughts on “Chicago Code.”
OK. Figure they’re gone now? I was only trying to scare off the sort of people who view positive reviews as a sign that a show is like medicine, something you have to swallow down so that you can understand the conversation on Emmy night.
I mean, “The Chicago Code” is a police drama. It’s not a historical drama about manners among England’s upper class, or even a fact-based crime saga where you have to have wikipedia open at all times to keep the different characters straight. It’s a contemporary police drama set in one of the largest cities in the country and it requires absolutely no research for a point-of-entry. You see, there are Good Guys and there are Bad Guys. And unlikely the way some people felt about “Terriers,” “The Chicago Code” has consistently been promoted as exactly what it is: Meat and potatoes, folks. Meat and potatoes.
Your good guys are led by Jarek Wysocki (Jason Clarke), a difficult-to-work-with veteran of the Chicago PD, who has an established relationship with new PD superintendent Teresa “Don’t Call Me Bunny” Colvin (Jennifer Beals), who’s both too young and too female to be superintendent, at least in some eyes.
The show’s title is an attempt to create a new idiom, a variation on what David Mamet called “the Chicago Way” in his script for “The Untouchables.” It refers to how, perhaps more than any other American city, Chicago has been built on a foundation in which law enforcement and power have always been stratified and binding those layers together has been a system of graft and corruption (and sometimes far worse). The blending of what we would consider crime with what we would consider justice has become so institutionalized that the city operates within those confines like second nature. One hand washes the other and together they wash the face, as the idiom goes. And it works.
But Colvin is determined to break the cycle and she’s giving Wysocki, and eager beaver new partner Caleb Evers (Matt Lauria), free rein to target corruption, specifically in the form of Alderman Ronin Gibbons (Delroy Lindo).
[Can we pause to applaud Shawn Ryan’s gift with naming characters? I doubt anybody would list “character names” among the Top 20 things about either “The Shield” or “Terriers,” but the guy gives characters names that instantly situate them within a real Melting Pot world. The name of nearly every character on all of these shows practically tells you who their parents were, what they did for a living and which wave of immigration brought them to the country.]
Because of Colvin’s mandate, Wysocki and Evers aren’t bound by any jurisdictional nonsense, so they’ve got the entire city as a potential backdrop, which Ryan and his team — led initially by ace pilot director Charles McDougall — use marvelously. These cops are out and about throughout the city of Chicago and every frame of the series benefits from that actual presence. Compare “The Chicago Code” to the half-hearted masquerade of “The Good Wife” and its “Why The Heck Didn’t We Just Set The Show In New York City?” look. “The Good Wife” mostly gets credit for filming in New York rather than LA, but it’s not Chicago. “The Chicago Code” gets value from the different neighborhoods, from the L trains, from the urban areas.
Yeah, “The Chicago Code” is a little fetishistic in its reverence for the uniqueness of Chicago. “You think you can change how this job gets done in Chicago?!?” a corrupt cop bellows in just one of many declarations about the specific way things work in this city. But most of the Chicago-on-Chicago discussion has a purpose, as when Jarek and Caleb initially bond over White Sox (rather than Cubs) fandom, and so far I don’t recall anybody eating a hotdog or a deep dish pizza. Come to think of it, why aren’t the characters eating hotdogs and deep dish pizzas all the time, darnit? I know that’s what I do when I’m in Chicago.
Digressions aside, I think the last few paragraphs were meant to say one thing: It’s a not a coincidence where “The Chicago Code” is set and just as “The Shield” was a cop show where the city of Los Angeles had a ride-along in the back, “The Chicago Code” is a cop show where Chicago has a ride-along for all of the action. Hey, you know what would have been a great name for “The Chicago Code”? Oh, never mind.
“The Chicago Code” is anchored by Chicago, but it’s also strengthened by all of its lead performances. I’ve spoken enough about Clarke’s struggles with regional American accents — Rhode Island in “Brotherhood,” Chicago here — but the accent mellows and what Clarke provides outside of the accent is a capable sense of off-the-cuff humor, and a toughness and dignity that you never question, even if the character appears to be making a few questionable choices in his personal life. Clarke has a good rapport with Lauria, whose carriage and cadences are so different from on “Friday Night Lights” that even some “FNL” fans will be unable to connect Caleb with Luke in any way. Beals is excellent in a role that has any possible uncertainty as an authority figure built into the character. Like I don’t know that I always buy Beals barking orders, but in each case where I might quibble, I think the character’s newness on the job explains or covers my skepticism.
There are fine supporting perfomers aplenty and I’d just quickly want to mention Devin Kelley, Todd Williams and Billy Lush, though “The Chicago Code” is one of those shows were every tiny supporting role was cast so that the actors look and sound the part perfectly.
The leaves Lindo, whose career since his true breakout in “Clockers” has to place him high on the list of Best Underutilized Actors. It’s not like he hasn’t worked steadily for the past 15 years, but there’s a good chance “The Chicago Code” will evolve into the defining project of this phase of his career. Lindo performs an expert balancing act in making Ronin Gibbons thoroughly wicked figure of fear, but also a dedicated public servant who knows how to operate within The Chicago Code. He’s threatening, but also empathetic and Lindo is good enough to make you ask an important question: Yes, Gibbons is into some nasty stuff, but how confident are we that if Wysocki and Colvin bring him down, the alternative will be any better?
In “The Chicago Code,” it’s all about shades of gray, which means that perspective is everything and which explains why Ryan has decided to make the show strongly voice-over driven. Every character gets the chance to narrate and the inner monologues don’t always enhance what’s happening on-screen, but they give context for the characters and situate them within the afore-belabored Chicago stratification. I’m not a lover of excessive use of voiceover, but I appreciate that its use here isn’t to over-explain what we’re seeing, but rather to enhance the deep-background in a way that probably couldn’t be done without equally clunky expositional scenes. At least with this device, “The Chicago Code” can slip in the backstory, while keeping the primary narrative streamlined.
Focus was the great virtues of original “The Chicago Code” pilot critics were sent in May and a place where I’m having very minor concerns after watching the first three episodes. That original pilot was tinkered somewhat to swing the emphasis from “focus” to “balance.” Extra scenes were added with Beals and with Lindo, scenes which aren’t bad by any means, but scenes which are more about making this a true three-hander, rather than maintaining a laser-sight on the end-game. In subsequent episodes, I also wondered if the weekly dramas were unfolding with their eyes on the final prize, instead of in the interest to serve the needs of Beals and Lindo as co-leads. I don’t think that my worries will extend to viewers who haven’t seen that original pilot, because the loss in focus allows for a greater picture of the whole system. I think the show’s current approach might work better on cable with that extra five or 10 minutes of weekly episode time.
Positive reviews didn’t help “Terriers” or “Lone Star,” but those were shows where you somehow had to emphasize that they were more than they seemed to be. “The Chicago Code” is like the network equivalent of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” It’s exactly what it seems to be, a traditional genre show done right. It’s the kind of cop show that I like and I don’t care for cop shows, insofar as everything works: It’s got muscular dialogue, characters to cheer for and root against, a vividly realized setting and a story I want to see play out.
I’m pretty sure “The Chicago Code” is the best new network drama of the spring, but maybe that’s something you want to keep under your hat. After all, we’d like people to actually tune in.
“The Chicago Code” premieres on FOX at 9 p.m. on Monday (Feb. 7) night.