The Chicago Code debuts tonight on Fox at 9 p.m. Eastern.
With The Chicago Code, writer-producer Shawn Ryan returns to network television, where he’s had some recent success as the steward (with David Mamet) of CBS’ action series The Unit and as the fill-in showrunner on Fox’s psychological mystery series Lie To Me. But TV fans will know Ryan better for his two FX shows: The Shield, the gritty policier that Ryan created and steered through 88 episodes, to what is widely considered one of the most satisfying finales in television history; and Terriers, the low-rent private eye series that Ryan worked on with Ted Griffin for its one and only season, and what may be the show with the highest-ever “loved intensely” to “watched” ratio. (Someday, maybe they’ll say about Terriers what they used to say about The Velvet Underground, that only 100 people bought their albums but that every one of them went on to form an amazing band.)
So where does The Chicago Code fit on the Ryan spectrum? Is it more The Shield or The Unit? That’s a question not satisfactorily answered by the first episode of The Chicago Code, which airs tonight on Fox, but it’s one I’m going to be tracking from week to week as I write about the show.
I should state upfront that it’ll be fine if The Chicago Code winds up being more like The Unit. That was a solid actioner, and it was superior to the generic ensemble procedurals that make up the bulk of the CBS lineup. There’s nothing wrong with a straight-ahead, two-fisted, law-and-order adventure, and if The Chicago Code splits that way, there’s plenty of evidence from the pilot that it’ll be a good one.
But I get the sense from the pilot that Ryan has grander ambitions for The Chicago Code, and I can’t deny that I’m rooting for him to realize them. All things being equal, I’m more of a Shield guy, and it would thrill me to no end to see a network TV show succeed while trying to kick a little ass.
The Chicago Code follows a handful of cops, crooks, and politicians heavily involved with the corruption that simultaneously keeps the title city moving and makes life hard on those who aren’t in on the racket. Jennifer Beals plays Teresa Colvin, the city’s first female Superintendent, who saw her father driven out of business by the system of pay-offs. Denied in her efforts to form an official task force on corruption, Colvin decides to form an unofficial one, and her go-to agent is her former partner on the force, Jarek Wysocki (played by Jason Clarke), a plain-clothes cop who has a reputation for burning through partners and for pursuing leads further than his superiors would prefer. Wysocki also has a niece on the force, a uni named Vonda (played by Devin Kelley), whom he helped take care of after her parents died. Vonda’s currently partnered up with the hot-headed Isaac Joiner (played by Todd Williams), who looks for ways to thrust himself into the action even when it’s ill-advised. In this first episode, Jarek also meets his latest partner, Caleb Evers (played by Matt Lauria), a shrewd, young go-getter who tries to ingratiate himself with Wysocki by peppering him with personal pop-culture questions on his first day. (Questions like, “What’s the hottest scene in movie history?” and “What are the top 10 album covers of all time?”)
Colvin’s counting on Wysocki and Evers to help her bring down Alderman Ronin Gibbons (played by Delroy Lindo), an entrenched power-broker who has ties to Fergus Construction, which does a lot of work for the city. Early in the pilot, a comptroller for Fergus turns up dead, not long after coming to Alderman Gibbons with with her suspicions of bid-rigging on a big government project. While Wysocki and Evers investigate the murder—with the help of one of Colvin’s precious undercover resources in the Irish mob—Colvin and her right-hand man Antonio work to intervene in a threatened gang war.
The Chicago Code’s first episode covers a lot of ground, and it does so through a structure that relies heavily on voice-over narration. When used lazily and/or cutely, voice-over can dumb a show down, but it works here, for a couple of reasons. First off, the alternative to voice-over in a pilot episode with a lot of backstory is to work that backstory into the dialogue, which can be painfully awkward. I’m thinking here of the first episode of Blue Bloods, which featured a lot of lines like, “I know your wife died two months ago, but I’m glad you’re back on the force, where your father and brothers all serve, except for your older brother, who just passed the bar.” If you’re going to be that blunt, just bite the bullet and narrate. It’s more honest.
Also, The Chicago Code takes an artful approach to voice-over, more akin to Martin Scorsese’s mob movies—Casino in particular. We hear from both Wysockis, Colvin, Antonio, and Gibbons, who get us caught up on their respective pasts. The episode even uses the narration device to spring a wicked surprise, which I won’t spoil here.
In fact, I’d better not say any more at all about the plot of this episode; we can get more into the story after the episode airs and in future weeks. Instead, let me talk up the style, which is more cinematic than Shawn Ryan’s prior shows. This manifests most strikingly in a big car chase early in the episode, shot with dynamic camera moves at street level, intercut with overhead shots that really get across the positioning of the cars and the Chicago locations around them. (The show, as a whole, makes great use of Chicago as a character, which in itself gives it a look and feel unlike other urban TV cop thrillers.)
That said, while the chase scene is exciting to watch, the circumstances of the chase are a little deflating: Jarek’s partner pulls their speeding car up next to the speeding car of the fleeing suspect, and Jarek tries to negotiate with him through the window, while they’re both still in motion. That’s the kind of cutesy moment that seems out-of-place in a purportedly hard-edged cop show.
Similarly, after the wildly quotable dialogue of Terriers, I was a little disappointed by The Chicago Code’s patter, which is fast-paced and flavorful at times, but merely expository too often—and peppered with way too “Hey, it’s Chicago!” signifiers. (Example: Wysocki responding to the notion of something being possible by saying, “So is the Cubs winning the series, but I’m not going to call my bookie.”) The Chicago Code pilot works best when it feels like real cops talking, as when they refer to a gang-banger killing a gang-banger as “a misdemeanor murder,” or when Wysocki watches some firemen entering a building and says, “America’s Heroes… just ask ‘em.”
Ryan has promised that The Chicago Code will feature a mix of one-and-done cases, mini-arcs, and serialized storytelling, not too different from The Shield or Terriers. But what I’m really anxious to know is whether The Chicago Code’s stories will be as unpredictable and intense as those on Ryan’s two FX shows. Will it have those moments when the heroes make terrible mistakes and back themselves into corners with no clear escape?
The Fox executives would like to prove that a cable-style drama can make it on a major network, even after the ignominious failure of last fall’s Lone Star. So they’ve been pushing The Chicago Code hard for months and even changed the name from the funkier but less punchy Ride-Along. The problem, though, is that is that even veteran TV watchers and creators disagree on what “cable-style” means. More violence? More profanity? More sexually explicit?
To me it has to do with a level of sophistication and maturity and a willingness to push audiences instead of pandering. It has to do with the writing and the direction—not whether the material can get past standards and practices. Hill Street Blues—a show that The Chicago Code resembles at times, including in the “wicked surprise” I alluded to earlier—had that maturity. So did ER in its heyday, when it was the biggest hit on TV despite asking viewers to wallow in human misery for an hour a week. In my opinion, Lone Star failed because it tried to be a “cable-style” drama but with a network-style protagonist—someone who was too nice a guy to hold viewer interest. (Also, nobody watched the show to begin with. Big problem there.) But I think if Ryan and company stick to their guns, The Chicago Code could stand up to Hill Street Blues and ER, not to mention The Shield and Terriers.
Because in addition to the slam-bang action and rich local color in the pilot, there are moments scattered throughout that indicate a willingness on the part of The Chicago Code writers to treat their audience like grown-ups. Early on, for example, Alderman Gibons tells Superintendent Colvin that they’re “on the same team,” and I believe he believes that. What’s going to make him a great villain—besides the performance of the always formidable Lindo—is that I don’t think Gibbons considers himself a villain at all. He’s more like Vic Mackey as a politician. Similarly, later in the episode, there’s a moment when Wysocki and Colvin go to Gibbons and catch him up on where they’re at with the Fergus case. They tell him pretty much everything, leaving out only that he’s the target of their investigation. But we can tell he knows, and we can tell that they know he knows, even though no one ever says anything about it openly. A subtle piece of writing, staging and acting in that scene.
And then there’s what looks to be the heart of The Chicago Code: the relationship between Wysocki and Evers. One’s a seen-it-all loner, loving his new mandate to troll the entire city and take control of any case he chooses, if he feels it fits into Colvin’s larger investigation. The other’s a bright-faced kid—nicknamed “Ridgemont High” and “Spicoli” by Wysocki after Evers calls the Phoebe Cates scene from Fast Times the sexiest of all time—who knows his business but may be a little too eager to please. There’s a funny bit in the pilot where Wysocki sniffs out that Evers is actually a Cubs fan, even though he’d pretended to be a White Sox fan. It’s funny, but it’s also telling. Lauria gives a likable performance as Evers, and it’s going to be fun watching him match wits with Clarke’s Wysocki every week. But if Evers is willing to lie about his favorite baseball team, what else is he capable of?
If The Chicago Code is the show I’m hoping it’ll be, we may just find that out by the end of this abbreviated first season. And if not… well, the cast is great and the city looks terrific. Nothing wrong with that either.
- I’ve got access to on-line screeners for the next two Chicago Code episodes, but I haven’t watched them yet, because my policy is that unless circumstances require me to watch ahead, I’d rather write about each episode with no more inside scoop than any regular viewer would have. But the good news is that for the next two weeks at least, I’ll have reviews ready to go as soon as the episodes are done. So I’ll see you here then.