No city is a “character.” As much as creators like to elevate their stories by claiming a location, it’s just a clichéd attempt to make something sound important without earning it. Cities are complicated places, and nowhere is that more obvious than in Showtime’s new drama series, The Chi. As much as recent headlines (and presidential tirades) have dwelled on the violence in Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city—and The A.V. Club’s hometown—has never fit easy categorization. Lena Waithe, the Chicago-bred creator of The Chi, is attempting to paint a broader, more realistic portrait of the city, something that has eluded many of The Chi’s predecessors. Before The Chi’s second episode on Sunday, The A.V. Club investigated why it’s so difficult to do Chicago right, and whether The Chi is on the right track.
Kyle Ryan: When I first heard rumblings about The Chi sometime last year, I had one hope: that it could be a show—never mind a comedy or drama—that actually captures the city correctly. I say this knowing full well the request may be impossible: Chicago is a giant metropolis, a notoriously segregated “city of neighborhoods” whose residents can have drastically different lives from their neighbors a couple blocks away. There is no one “correct” depiction of Chicago; a show authentic to someone’s experience won’t feel the same way to another person. (The possible exception is the weather, which torments all of us.) Try to tell all of stories, and you end up telling none of them.
Still... if a show can’t be perfect, maybe it could feel closer to the truth. Dick Wolf has made a cottage industry of his various Chicago-set series, which film all over the city but aren’t necessarily of the city. Granted, I have limited experience with them, but Chicago is more backdrop to the drama of its protagonists than a thematic force.
You could say Chicago P.D. comes closest, as its central character, Hank Voight, was introduced on Chicago Fire as a dirty cop—a phenomenon not limited to Chicago but sadly commonplace here. Chicago has a long, ignoble history of crime, criminal syndicates, and crooked civil servants, and Hollywood productions often to go that well when they set stories here.
Its seemingly out-of-control violence has drawn a lot of attention the past few years, including the ire of a president widely despised within city limits. Even with homicides down sharply in 2017, the city still has more homicides than New York and LA combined, and it had at least 2,700 more shootings than New York last year.
Like it or not—I have my “no, it’s not constant gunfire” spiel at the ready for curious outsiders—it’s a story to tell. Spike Lee addressed the violence in 2015 with Chi-Raq, with mixed results. One episode into The Chi, it’s hard to tell how much the city’s violence will inform the show. It comes quickly in the pilot, and the possibility of more hangs over its final scene.
The Chi paints a broader portrait to life in Chicago, though. Credit creator-writer Lena Waithe, a Chicagoan who can draw from her own experiences—one of the knocks against Lee and Chi-Raq—to shape the story. In her thoughtful review of the pilot, our Ashley Ray-Harris suggests that Waithe went too broad, which “plays into the themes so often heard in the national conversation around the city... but the episode offers too little in the way of character development to move beyond these stereotypes.”
Even with the expected location shenanigans—also noted in Ashley’s review—The Chi felt closer to the city than other shows I’ve seen. I mean, I think we can all agree that Stranger Things’ “Lost Sister” episode is the apotheosis of the Chicago experience, what with its gritty punk warehouse somehow located on what would be Lake Michigan. Or The League, which suggested that all the cool thirtysomethings hang out at the bar inside Gibsons, an old-man steakhouse located in what locals call “the Viagra Triangle.” Guys, what has done Chicago right, and less so? What’s your take on The Chi?
Ashley Ray-Harris: I agree that The Chi does a better job than almost any TV show we’ve seen so far, but that almost makes the missteps in the show more glaring. If you want to tell the story of Chatham and the South Side, replacing it with Pilsen and the West Side doesn’t just annoy Chicagoans, but misrepresents the resources available in that neighborhood. The story of the South Side is one that must include its segregation and, in some areas, isolation from the North Side and the Loop. There are people who live on the South Side who’ve never even been downtown, and to have shots where the Willis Tower (née Sears) looms in the background erases that reality. Seeing characters in The Chi, who are supposed to be in Chatham, walk down streets filled with businesses and shops that only populate gentrified areas of Chicago isn’t true to the experience. Sure, it makes for a better visual, but why not put the actual neighborhood on display? It’s easy to give shows like Shameless a pass for a whitewashed version of Chicago. Shameless isn’t trying to represent Chicago; it just wants to tell the story of the family at the center of the show.
I don’t think we need to hold The Chi to a higher standard, but if the show is going to focus on the city’s violence, it has to shine a light on the infrastructure and segregation in the city that incubates the violence. This is what made The Wire so excellent, and I’m hopeful that we’ll see more of that as the season progresses, but The Chi feels like the first time Chicago has really been seen on TV. And we’re all rooting for it to do it right.
(I would also like to say that my favorite worst depiction of Chicago is The Real O’Neals. I do not believe anyone behind The Real O’Neals has ever seen the city of Chicago. If you want to accept that places like Evanston or Wilmette are Chicago, I guess it’s fine, but the show frequently referenced the city, and the father worked for the Chicago P.D.)
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky: “It has to shine a light on the infrastructure and segregation in the city that incubates the violence.” I think Ashley has hit the nail on the head there. The Chi’s first episode has its bright spots (the cast), but at this point, it represents wasted potential; its generalities undercut dramatic tension instead of making it more tangible. They keep the city at an arm’s length.
Not to get all pedantic, “Old Man Chicago” about this, but it isn’t just a question of vague geography and teleporting characters; one of the dark socioeconomic ironies of Chicago, after all, is that many parts of our city look alike, the same forms of greystones and two- and three-flats repeated in identical street and alley layouts across uniform 660-foot blocks. But Rick Famuyiwa, who directed the pilot, just doesn’t have a sense for the natural eyelines of the street. He applies a kind of Los Angeles topography to a flat, gridded, pedestrian space. Say what you will about Joe Swanberg, whose Netflix series Easy gets teased for for its mostly North Side view of Chicago, but the guy gets how people move round the city. (Interesting side note: The Chi’s pilot was shot by Ben Richardson, who was Swanberg’s regular cinematographer for a while.)
But then, isn’t it that the point of a pilot, to establish generalities? And is there any activity more tediously Chicagoan than policing everyone else’s Second City-ness? So I’ll quit ragging; the series has potential. What’s interesting to me, as a Chicagoan who thinks the city is an amazing dramatic canvas, is that Pilsen and its closest West Side neighborhoods have become such a staple of TV shows set in the city (especially the Dick Wolf franchise), much the same way as the grandiose architecture of the Loop invariably dominates movies set here. There’s a practical reason for that: The studio spaces and camera rentals in Chicago are mostly located there. (Ditto the fact that few of these series regularly show characters taking the El or the bus or going to the park; while permits for filming on the street in Chicago are easy, the Chicago Transit Authority and Park District are a lot tougher and a heck of a lot more expensive.) Pilsen is, in reality, a beautiful neighborhood—busy and colorful, its main streets packed with shops, bright public art, and gorgeous Neo-Romanesque and Beaux-Arts buildings. But then Chatham is also a handsome neighborhood, full of serious-looking middle-class bungalows and unique midcentury and modernist homes built for the post-World War II elite of black Chicago. There’s a story there, too.
Gwen Ihnat: I was glad to see positive reviews of The Chi, because I have longed for a proper representation of my hometown past a Cubs hat and a hot dog without ketchup on it. I’ll jump on Ignatiy’s “Old Man Chicago” train: There was even something called the Chicago School Of Television back in the ’50s. In fact, all mass media—including movies and radio—had strongholds in Chicago at some point before people fled the sucky weather for the coasts to take advantage of the Broadway actors in New York and the sunny climates of California.
Included in the Chicago School Of Television was Studs’ Place, featuring famous writer Studs Terkel drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes with his buddies. The low-key setup better captured the city’s Midwestern-yet-urban feel than most of the more famous shows that followed it decades later.
It’s not that TV creators didn’t try: Sitcoms in the ’70s stretched from the Edgewater high-rise of The Bob Newhart Show to the Cabrini-Green projects of Good Times. The latter attempted realistic storylines, such as J.J. briefly becoming a gang member, or his younger brother, Michael, fighting getting bused to a different neighborhood school—and it was the only Chicago show of the time that felt connected to the city. Aside from Bob Newhart’s opening-credits walk around the Loop to his condo, his show could’ve been set anywhere. Ditto T.J. Hooker, which took an episode-length detour to Chicago at the end of its fourth season.
Later sitcoms took an even more perfunctory look at Chicago, such as the two-second shot of Buckingham Fountain in the opening credits of Married With Children, or the generic Chicago vibe of Family Matters. (It’s no accident that the fake BoJack Horseman sitcom, Horsin’ Around, is also set here and features that same pointless fountain shot.)
The worst culprits are the later North Side hangout shows, such as Jason Bateman’s short-lived Chicago Sons from 1997, featuring an apartment overlooking Wrigley Field (which would cost a fortune):
I loved the cable sitcom My Boys, in which many of the characters were Chicago sportswriters, and the hangout bar was based on Guthrie’s on Addison, but there were way too few location shoots for my liking. Happy Endings, another sitcom I liked a lot, was ostensibly set in Chicago, yet never seemed to get off the backlot. I get that these shows had to be filmed in L.A., but even some perfunctory background shots would have helped actually ground these series in Chicago more than the occasional name-check and reference to horrible winters.
So I applaud shows like The Chi, Shameless, and Easy that actually shoot in the major Midwestern metropolitan area where they are set. To my mind, it’s the only way to really capture Chicago. And hopefully the sprawling Cinespace Studio that’s here now—home of that Dick Wolf stable as well as shows like Empire and The Exorcist—will help draw even more creators to take advantage of all the visual splendor Ignatiy mentions.
What I really appreciate is the obvious love people like Lena Waithe and Joe Swanberg have for this city, even with all its flaws. Swanberg has made me see my own neighborhood through cinematic eyes: The swath of north Lincoln Avenue featuring our local Indian restaurant and movie theater, with the El in the background, had never seemed so stunning. But shootings also happen in Chicago more or less every day. Waithe delving into two of those deaths is a staunch reminder that every single one of them impacts the entire city. I agree that some of geographical shifts are unfortunate, but as Ashley puts it, “The Chi feels like the first time Chicago has really been seen on TV.” It’s enough to hook me into the show every week.
Danette Chavez: The holidays may be over, but this is kind of a Festivus “airing of grievances moment” for me, not least of which because I was just at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, where I talked about the difference between a city’s murder rate and murder count, thereby making myself the life of every network cocktail party. The Chi was the only new series presented this year set in Chicago (in the first half of the tour, anyway), but last year, three series set up residence in the Second City: the defunct Chicago Justice and APB, as well as Superior Donuts, which is still alive and kicking. Their depictions ran from the innocuous to the cynical. Justice’s 606 zip code was mostly incidental, because Dick Wolf’s franchise seems to expand without any real calculation. Superior Donuts’ executive producers, including star Jermaine Fowler, have at least done their research, setting up the donut shop in the gentrifying neighborhood of Uptown. Sometimes the show’s class transition and displacement themes feel shoehorned, but overall, Superior Donuts is much more earnest in exploring its locale. Then there’s David Slack’s crime procedural APB; inspired by the privatization of a parish police force in New Orleans, it was only transplanted to Chicago because the city’s name is increasingly synonymous with violence, thanks in part to our idiot president as well as Hollywood itself. The drama never tried to “shine a light on the infrastructure and segregation in the city that incubates the violence,” which is something that I also hope for with The Chi.
I’ve watched the first half of the season one, and while it never fixes its location issues, it still offers a nuanced look at a mostly unseen and dishearteningly underserved part of the city. Intent is important to me, so when outsiders only show an interest in my city to use its flaws as a backdrop without even attempting any real commentary, well, let’s just say my hackles are raised. That’s not the case here, though, even if logistics currently prevent The Chi from nailing the look of Chatham.