I watched Southland last week for the first time since the show’s initial season on NBC. I thought Southland was just fine in its original incarnation, if not unique enough to convince me to become a regular viewer. But I’d heard—from friends, from fellow critics, and from you guys—that the show had gotten much better since moving to TNT. So I checked out the latest episode, and whaddaya know? Y’all were right. The expressionistic style, the vivid Los Angeles location shooting, the immersive storytelling… Southland isn’t perfect, mind you, but it’s a mature piece of work, worthy of attention.
I’m sure you’ve figured out where I’m going with this: The Chicago Code, while a solid show, isn’t up to the level of Southland. At least not yet. The Chicago Code features terrific location shooting too, and it has a great deal of energy in its style, especially in the action sequences. But while it means to be mature, there’s still too much spoon-feeding going on and too many clichés.
That was especially evident in this week’s episode, “O’Leary’s Cow.” Largely leaving aside the series’ master-plot, the episode cuts between three storylines: In one, Wysocki and Evers try to solve a murder in the notoriously close-knit Chinatown; in another, Liam tries to ingratiate himself with a crew of arsonists; in the third, Teresa discovers that her brother-in-law has been making money off of his access to her. “O’Leary’s Cow” is largely light on action—a shame, given that Clark Johnson directed it—and largely free of surprises. Aside from some solid weaving together of the three segments’ shared themes, this is as conventional an episode as The Chicago Code has yet produced.
And again: conventional isn’t bad, necessarily. There’s a lot to like about “O’Leary’s Cow.” Like the moment when Superintendent Colvin goes to investigate a potential money-laundering case at the behest of her brother-in-law Robert and is crushed when she hears the complainant ask if she’s expecting more money. Or the moment when Wysocki finds a Chinese-American cop who’s been stuck behind a desk for 12 years and offers her a chance to do some fieldwork, as a translator. Or Liam’s angst when he gets his in with the arson crew and then kills somebody the first time he sets a fire. Or the way Evers flirts with new character Nurse Natalie, asking if she’s shooting him down because of “my dedication to a wide range of children’s charities?”
But each of those scenes and lines is undercut in one way or another by the episode’s straightforwardness. With Nurse Natalie, I was hoping for some really juicy reason for why she wouldn’t give date Evers. (Honestly, I was kind of hoping that she’d turn out to be Wysocki’s as-yet-unseen young fiancée.) Instead, she explains that she doesn’t date cops because cops get shot and die. Nothing there we haven’t heard in hundreds of other police dramas. With Liam, we had to suffer through more stiff line readings—especially in his first appearance, where he reintroduces his entire story arc in one awkward sentence—along with further examples of why someone as antsy as him has no business working as an undercover cop. With the Teresa/Robert storyline, we were treated to a nicely growly performance by Terriers favorite Rockmond Dunbar, but then when Teresa tells Robert that he’s going to have to turn himself in to the FBI, we get a hackneyed speech from Teresa’s sister, Amy, about how all Teresa cares about is her job, not her family.
The Chinatown storyline was perhaps the most frustrating, because there was so little to it. We hear at the start of the episode that Wysocki is still nursing a grudge over a case he failed to close in Chinatown a couple of years ago, due to the local big shot “Chairman” Lao (played by Lost’s François Chau), who spirited the suspect away before he could could be brought to justice. This time, when a black teenage evangelist is killed and has his hand chopped off—apparently because Lao’s security forces mistakenly thought he was responsible for robbing an old lady in the neighborhood—Wysocki is determined to find out who killed the kid and to implicate Lao. Which he does. With no complications whatsoever. And that’s fine, y’know, except that… this is a genre show. Isn’t it usually better if there’s a little more tension? A twist or two?
The best part of the Chinatown storyline comes at the end, when Wysocki agrees to Lao’s request for a lighter sentence in exchange for finally finding the suspect in his old unclosed case. Wysocki wants Lao to give the information to the victim’s father, and when Lao does, Wysocki and the father both learn that the murderer is lying in pieces at the bottom of a lake—a kind of justice more satisfying to the father than the CPD’s would’ve been.
What ultimately elevates “O’Leary’s Cow” from averageness—a little, at least—is that very Chicago Code notion that there’s an official way of doing things and a “family” way. Liam’s now learning just how far he’s going to have to go to serve both his crime family and his police family. Teresa suffers alienation from her biological family for not wanting to stain her reputation or sink to “Chicago-style” fixing. And hovering above the fray, there’s Alderman Gibbons, making public overtures about “doing everything he possibly can” to alleviate the tensions in his multi-ethnic ward, while quickly and quietly working behind the scenes to anoint Lao’s replacement.
It’s in Gibbons' office, too, that The Chicago Code shows that it can be a very subtle show when it wants to be. There, we see “the new Lao” sipping the scotch that Gibbons offers, just as Teresa did earlier in the episode—a way of showing that for all Teresa’s idealism, she’s not as different from Gibbons’ puppets as she thinks. As soon as The Chicago Code gains the confidence to make all of its storytelling and character beats that sly, it’s going to be a hell of a show. Maybe even Southland-good.
- Nice bit of local color as the cops play gloveless 16” softball against the Streets & Sanitation department.
- Wysocki pays homage to Chicago classic The Blues Brothers when he notes that the murder victim was “on a mission from God.”
- Vonda and Isaac are barely in “O’Leary’s Cow,” though it’s notable that the latter picks up some extra scratch working security for a possibly crooked construction company that’s in conflict with the Irish mob. Also, the partners get one of the episode’s best exchanges when Vonda, talking about her uncle to Isaac, says, “You’ll win him over someday,” and Isaac answers, “I don’t think God’s invented that day.”
- Loved all the detail about how the arson and reconstruction businesses work hand-in-hand—the kind of inside-y detail that The Chicago Code can do so well. But how can a show capable of being that smart turn around and have a scene where Liam and his mob buddy stand around outside the house that Liam just burned down and talk about the crime, in a crowd no less?
- Do people who actually live in Chicago talk about which side they’re from as much as the characters on The Chicago Code do?
- The ratings haven’t been outstanding so far, but they haven’t been lousy either, and they have been steady, which may be the show’s saving grace. For all my nitpicks, I really do hope The Chicago Code gets renewed for a second season, since I feel like a creative team as talented as the one on this show will take more chances and enhance what’s already working if they get another shot.