Series Premiere: The Chicago Code – “Pilot”

“Pilot”

February 7th, 2011

In some ways, The Chicago Code seems like the only new series premiering this midseason.

Oh sure, there are a number of other shows making their debuts in the first two months of the year, but The Chicago Code has been one of the year’s most-buzzed about pilots since last Spring, when it was still in contention for the Fall lineup. Being bumped to midseason (for Lone Star, no less) may have been seen as a slight the first time around, but it turned into a real coup for Shawn Ryan and company. Their show went from one of the year’s most talked about pilots to the year’s last great hope, the one new network show that critics could actually endorse wholeheartedly which doesn’t get immediately canceled.

We all know what happened to Lone Star, however, and yet I feel fairly confident that the same fate is unlikely for this particular program. At its core, The Chicago Code is a police drama, but it stands out in the fact that it seems so committed to surface multidimensionality. There are no “cop shows” on television which are actually one-dimensional: they all have their quirks, and all engage in elements of character and basic seriality on a smaller scale. However, for the most part, they purposefully appear one-dimensional. One of the reasons that shows like CSI or NCIS have become a punchline is that they are sold as something blindly simple, capable of being reduced and often (although not always) reducing themselves as if to meet those lowered expectations.

At least evidenced by its pilot, The Chicago Code is not playing the same game. Not content to establish simply a premise or a setting in its opening episode, the show establishes a world: a story is told, a map is drawn, and ambiguities are left without feeling as though pointless mystery is being used to create gutless melodrama. It’s just a really smart hour of television, and one senses that the intelligence isn’t going to suddenly stop in the weeks ahead.

Really, debuting at midseason is going to give Shawn Ryan the wrong idea about this whole situation. It’s the only new drama FOX is launching this midseason, which meant considerable coverage in the NFL playoffs leading up to last night’s Super Bowl, and the positioning means that he got to write a cable length season when he might otherwise have been stretched to a full 22. It’s the ideal situation, creating a concise statement of intent that is likely to reach a (relatively) large number of viewers, and which could potentially leverage that into a second season next year.

Yes, this is presumptuous, but The Chicago Code is all about potential. While it creates week-to-week interest with the episode-ending denouement, which creates even more momentum behind a story which had considerable momentum to begin with, the various parts of the formula show great promise. There’s nothing revolutionary about a surly cop who has trouble keeping a partner, but Matt Lauria is perfect for the role of the earnest officer whose quiet confidence is aided by flashes of brilliance; there’s nothing all that surprising about a cop having a complex relationship with their ex-wife, but Jason Clarke is a strong enough anchor during his day job that his personal life has weight it might otherwise lack; the surprising rise of a female cop to the position of Superintendent was pretty blatantly designed to raise certain issues regarding women in power, but I like seeing those issues raised, and Jennifer Beals is really strong in a much welcome female leading role.

There are still, as there are in every pilot, shortcuts. As much as I love Delroy Lindo in the role of Alderman Gibbons, his was one the instance where the episode’s voiceover became too one-dimensional. We get that the character is corrupt, and we understand that the character has clearly played a part in the hit taken out on the Fergus comptroller. It’s true that some of my issues could stem from the fact that I knew he was playing a corrupt politician before I sat down to watch the show, and thus immediately knew that the comptroller was making a fatal mistake and that he was the one running the city. It just seemed like the other voiceovers were explaining back story, or elaborating on perspectives and ideologies which we could then see practiced (and, to some degree, challenged). By comparison, Gibbons lived up to every word of his voiceover, and we never got a scene where his history of corruption and his beliefs about Chicago really came to the surface. I like the shadowy nature of the character, but the voiceover was too on-the-nose, robbing the character of some of his mystery at the expense of what seemed to me to be unnecessary certainty.

There are other quibbles (like the fact that we never meet the fiance, which seems like a cheap way to avoid throwing your lead character under the bus), but overall this was a very enjoyable, but never overly flashy, experience. When the shooting happens, it is both shocking and edifying: it foregrounds both larger questions about who was behind the shootings (with numerous potential suspects) and smaller questions about the nature of the relationship between Superintendent and driver (given the conversation Antonio shares with Caleb and the “Let’s go home” line following the meet and greet). I’m probably reading more into it than I should, but the fact is that there is something there to read, and that moment felt…normal. It didn’t feel like it was intended for shock and awe: it felt almost problematically familiar, the world of Chicago so established that its regularity was built into the story (with Jarek’s niece even remarking that this was where her father, too, ended up, and of course the memorial wall). It wasn’t used as a sudden shocking moment that changes everything: it just confirmed what the pilot had already told us, launching into the rest of the series with some real confidence.

I won’t be able to stick with reviewing the show full time, simply based on current commitments. However, I’ll be watching, and based on critical responses to the first few episodes it seems like the show won’t be giving up its momentum without a fight. The cast is strong, the story has some teeth, and the core cop show principles are present without feeling as though the show can be reduced to them. Just some very smart TV, in a year where very smart TV has met some ignominious defeats.

Here’s hoping this one comes out on top.

Cultural Observations

  • I didn’t even think that Jarek’s dislike for swearing was a purposeful way to justify a lack of profanity, but as Sepinwall points out it’s a damn intelligent move.
  • Sepinwall also notes that it’s a bit sudden to have Liam be picked as an undercover cop so easily, but that’s another moment where previous knowledge meant that I wasn’t surprised at all: the perils of knowing who’s a regular cast member and who’s not, I guess!
  • I’m hoping the show is good enough to earn a potential fake Wire credits sequence, because that shot of Gibbons’ assistant kissing his ear would have totally made it into a version of “Down in the Hole.”
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5 Comments

Filed under The Chicago Code

5 responses to “Series Premiere: The Chicago Code – “Pilot”

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Series Premiere: The Chicago Code – “Pilot” | Cultural Learnings -- Topsy.com

  2. Jennifer Beals as Superintendent (chief) of police didn’t work for me. And that alone means it’s a no go. Really get tired of the networks use of the “beautiful” people for all lead roles. She doesn’t look like a cop, and neither does the other lead’s niece. The show started too “over the top” to have me believe in any supposed realism. Another TV cop drama that doesn’t hold together from the start, and from the start is where you better get me.

    • zaulsiin

      Honestly, I thought the “too beautiful for this job” aspect played perfectly into the basis for her promotion in the first place, namely that she was given the job because people expected her to be a pliable and accommodating puppet. Granted, this is little more than a personal justification, and I can certainly see why someone might feel otherwise, I just happen to disagree. Of course it really doesn’t hurt that, with an actress of Beals’ caliber in the role, the character is portrayed so remarkably believably otherwise.

      As for Wysocki’s niece, I do actually tend to agree. She seems much too… fragile, I guess, to be a beat cop. However, I do also feel that the show manages to justify this fairly well, in giving her the strong motivating presence of her uncle, while also having her relegated to the less dangerous “crowd control” work the majority of the time. It seems logical to me that she could be on the force, given her personal motivation to do the necessary work and pass the tests, along with her uncle’s ability to pull strings and get her in. Just as it seems logical that, once she gets in, they wouldn’t let her anywhere near the more difficult stuff, societal prejudices being what they are.

      All this aside, though, I’m willing to give any show from Shawn Ryan a huge grace period to find it’s footing, as he has never let me down. (Although, he’s never needed to use a very long grace period with any of his shows to get me hooked.) The Shield, Terriers, The Unit and Lie To Me were all stellar under his supervision (even if at least one of them was less than amazing without him), and I expect this will soon join them. Provided that FOX allows it to survive long enough, of course.

  3. Bryan

    I’m a lurker, so, um, hi.

    Anyway, I wanted to defend Gibbons’s voice-over. I actually thought it was “elaborating on perspectives and ideologies,” specifically why corruption thrives in Chicago (and other cities, but Chicago is the one I’m familiar with). Gibbons mentions helping his constituents get zoning permits, or reducing criminal charges. From the perspective of Gibbons, and enough voters to get him re-elected, the relationship between corrupt politicians and the city is not parasitic, but symbiotic. That’s one of the reasons the cops’ task is impossible, other than, “This is Chicago.” I guess that’s an obvious point, but in contrast, I don’t remember The Wire bringing it up until season five and the Clay Davis trial.

    Interestingly, in the examples he gave, Gibbons was probably able to help because of his corruption, not in spite of it. I’m guessing the zoning issue was resolved more by leaning on city officials and less by making sure the right forms were filled out. The show, and the city it portrays, would be less interesting if the villains were just shooting cops and driving locally-owned hardware stores out of business.

    • Thanks for emerging from the shadows, Bryan.

      It’s a fair point, and I didn’t think it was without merit. I just sort of knew going in that he was a dirty politician, and felt that this voiceover in particular was laying out a pretty obvious reality of corruption. Dude isn’t evil so much as he’s been pushed into doing evil things: to use another Wire comparison, he’s like the dock workers in Season 2, wherein actions they initially thought necessary to survive spiral out of control amidst great uncertainty.

      I think that, if the voiceover had been paired with flashbacks similar to those of the other characters this might have felt more two-dimensional, but my knowledge of the trope (and what the character was meant to represent) sort of made the basic statement of fact a bit on-the-nose stylistically (if not, as you point out, ideologically).

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