After Shawn Ryan created one of the definitive cop shows of all time with FX’s “The Shield,” it was hard to blame the guy for wanting to work in other territory for a while. Vic Mackey is a very hard act to follow, so it wasn’t surprising that Ryan’s next few jobs were the military drama “The Unit,” a season running “Lie to Me” and the brilliant-but-canceled private eye series “Terriers.”
With his new FOX drama “The Chicago Code,” which debuts tonight at 9 p.m., Ryan is firmly back in the world of badges and handcuffs and investigations into corruption. But the new show doesn’t feel like a pale imitation of its predecessor. The two series have some aspects in common, but the most important one is just a very high level of quality.
Jennifer Beals plays Teresa Colvin, the first female superintendent in the history of the Chicago PD. Chosen by crooked Alderman Ronin Gibbons (Delroy Lindo) because he assumed she’d be little more than a pretty puppet, Colvin instead has designs on bringing down the whole Chicago machine, with no budget, no backing from the rank-and-file, and only a two-man team consisting of her ex-partner Jarek Wysocki (Jason Clarke) and his new partner Caleb Evers (Matt Lauria).
Ryan has made a lot of smart choices here, first among them the setting itself. He grew up in nearby Rockford, IL and knows what a beautiful, photogenic city Chicago is, and the bulk of each episode was filmed (in a sweeping, cinematic style very unlike the herky-jerky “Shield” look) in real Chicago locations. Like “Breaking Bad” and a handful of other dramas on TV, this is one that looks so good I’d gladly watch with the sound off if I had to.
(The show also has a local’s ear rather than that of a tourist. For instance, Jarek is a White Sox fan – who legend has it once held off an entire lynch mob with a Carlton Fisk model bat – rather than the more obvious choice of the Cubs.)
Second was the casting of his central characters. You wouldn’t automatically think of Beals as a top cop (or cop, period), but the Chicago native sells her character’s confidence (the movie star smile she’s had since “Flashdance” looks oddly becoming as she walks up to crime scenes) and steely resolve. She more than holds her own opposite Lindo’s mesmerizing snake charmer of an alderman. Clarke (an Australian who played a corrupt politician himself on Showtime’s “Brotherhood”) has some early struggles with his character’s Chicago accent, but is otherwise a commanding presence.
And though Jarek and Caleb work regular cases in addition to chasing Gibbons, the show’s interest in corruption and the way a city functions makes it feel like something much larger in scope than your average cop drama. Not quite “The Wire” – this is FOX, after all, not HBO – but quite a bit richer than the dozens of other police procedurals out there.
There’s an exchange that was featured in most of the commercials during FOX’s playoff football coverage where a frustrated cop bellows at Teresa, “You think you can change how things get done IN CHICAGO?!?!?” Not the show’s subtlest moment (albeit good for a promo), but overall the series has a pretty nuanced sense of how the system works in a large city like this. There are questions of just how bad a guy Gibbons is, and when Teresa becomes overzealous in her punishment of a lazy veteran cop, Jarek warns her, “There is corruption, and then there is just the way things get done, and you have to know the difference.”
There’s nothing wildly original about “The Chicago Code.” The title itself invokes the “That’s the Chicago way” line from “The Untouchables” (which was written by David Mamet, Ryan’s partner on “The Unit”), the cops vs. crooked pols set-up isn’t especially novel, and there’s a scene in the third episode that’s so blatant in its Scorsese worship that it even uses the appropriate song from the “Goodfellas” soundtrack.
But then, what made “The Shield” great wasn’t novelty, but execution and the courage of its convictions. There had been plenty of shows and movies about cops who pushed the outer edge of the envelope, or even ones who were full-on crooked like Vic Mackey, but few of those stories were told as consistently well as “The Shield” was over seven seasons.
(And because Ryan has seven years of experience keeping his corrupt main character out of prison with it only occasionally feeling contrived or repetitive, I’m not too worried about how long it might take Teresa and Jarek to slap the bracelets on Gibbons.)
This is a very smart, well-produced, great-looking cop show, one that does familiar things but does them in interesting ways. There’s occasional voiceover narration, for instance, which many current shows use as a crutch. Here, Ryan and his writers use it for short, painless bursts of exposition, and they smartly accompany each voiceover with a rapid-fire montage of that character’s history so it doesn’t feel like the “show, don’t tell” rule of good storytelling is being terribly violated.
In one of those pieces of narration, Gibbons explains that, “They say Chicago is the city that works. What some people never understand is, it works in a lot of different ways.”
So, thankfully, does the versatile “Chicago Code.” This hasn’t been a good season for new broadcast network series, but we finally have a potentially great one here.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org