For all its initial faults—and there are more than a few—Chicago P.D. ultimately disappoints by committing the most critical spinoff sin: It fundamentally misunderstands what makes the original work. Chicago Fire was one of the surprises of NBC’s 2012-2013 season, debuting to minimal buzz then unexpectedly building a moderate-but-solid viewership, regularly besting its flashier timeslot rival, ABC’s Nashville. That NBC would want to capitalize on Fire’s modest success by expanding the world via a police-focused spinoff is understandable. What’s frustrating is how utterly Chicago P.D. misses the point of what’s interesting about its sister show—and how committed P.D. is to exploiting the most generic, trod-upon police tropes while couching its blandness in “edgy” violence.
Which isn’t to say that Chicago Fire is some sort of dramatic masterpiece—at best, it’s a pleasantly entertaining workplace drama, punctuated with an amusing streak of ridiculous, unrestrained melodrama—but to show just where Chicago P.D. pales in comparison. Fire is successful because it has become more character-driven (while still adding a few cool firefighting scenes), examining a group of people whose lives are intertwined both in and outside of the fire station. P.D., at least in the first three episodes, suffers from being distinctly plot-driven without much central focus—and with a haphazard attempt or three at throwing a few character moments in, between all of the door-kicking and gun-drawing.
Chicago P.D. centers on Jason Beghe as the possibly corrupt Sergeant Hank Voight, who’s released from prison and given control of an elite intelligence unit despite his ties to corruption. Working with him in The Unit—which is positioned as an upper-echelon assignment, but appears to be more like slightly above average—is Jon Seda (who, along with Beghe, has made regular appearances on Chicago Fire) as the competent and forthright Antonio Dawson; Sophia Bush as an officer who owes her life to Beghe; and an assortment of other interchangeable young, male detectives. The character with the most untapped potential is Elias Koteas, decked out in his full grizzled, bearded state, but he barely gets enough screen time to register at this point. If any of the other Unit members besides Koteas has a significantly interesting character trait, it hasn’t been revealed—they mostly just form one amorphous cop-blob.
When Beghe was introduced on Chicago Fire, he was entirely a bad guy. His prison sentence was punishment for attempting to murder one of the regular characters, to keep him from testifying against Beghe’s son. This meant that when P.D. got picked up to series, the show had to do some serious backtracking to create a legitimate way to make Beghe’s character—who practically dripped with mustache-twirling malice—the center of his own network show. The spinoff chose to get around this problem by introducing him as an Internal Affairs asset. They spring him from prison, set him up as the head of this Unit, and keep up his front of corruption in order to help out their own investigations.
It’s a strange premise, especially considering that Beghe’s corruption level is still shown as a moving target. The idea appears to be to make the viewer question their own loyalties toward Beghe, and for him to question just how far away from being corrupt he actually is. But the strangest thing about Chicago P.D. is how it appears to draw clear lines between Chicago’s different public-safety professions. In this world, firefighters and paramedics are the heroes and the police are the villains, with very few exceptions. The idea of a Chicago police officer with conflicted loyalties has been portrayed before (most notably in Fox’s short-lived but far superior The Chicago Code); corrupt cops have been portrayed before, too (Beghe’s character is nothing if not a watered-down Vic Mackey). What Chicago P.D. needs to find—and hasn’t quite yet—is how to make this particular conflicted, corrupt cop distinct, without having to resort to lame clichés like having him care for kids. (Spoiler alert: Beghe’s character cares for kids.)
All of this would be fine if the police aspect of the drama was compelling enough to keep things interesting until the show figures out the character dynamics. Chicago P.D. is almost constant action, featuring storming apartments, sadistic drug dealers, kidnappings, severed heads, and shootouts, but absolutely none of it makes any sort of lasting impression. It’s as if the violence is just some highly unpleasant wallpaper in your living room that you can’t remember why you picked out in the first place. Constant, relentless violence is just not interesting, especially when it’s this oddly nasty.
After the failure of all of NBC’s recent cop dramas (rest in peace, Blair Underwood’s wheelchair and Maria Bello’s hat), the network seems to be searching for a way to get a police drama to stick. Spinning off an established show in order to up the chances of that happening is a fine impulse, but this Chicago Fire offshoot is not quite up to the task of creating something indelible just yet. The first episode of Chicago P.D. starts with Beghe terrorizing and torturing information out of a suspect, before handing him bus fare and admonishing him to “Stay out of my city.” With drama as blithely banal as this, that won’t be a very difficult request.
Created by: Dick Wolf and Matt Olmstead
Developed by: Michael Brandt and Derek Haas
Starring: Jason Beghe, Sophia Bush, Patrick John Flueger, Elias Koteas, Jon Seda, Jesse Lee Soffer
Debuts: January 8 at 10 p.m. Eastern on NBC
Format: Hour-long police drama
Three episodes watched for review