Emmy-winning writer Lena Waithe (“Master of None”) opens her introduction for the production notes of Showtime’s “The Chi” (produced by Common) with a paragraph that illustrates what the new drama does well: “The Chi is a show about what it means to be black and human on the South Side of Chicago. It may seem like a simple concept, but that journey is very complex.” The story of the South Side of Chicago has been so diffused by politics and even entertainment that it’s been increasingly difficult to get a hold of the human stories going on geographically below the Windy City. On national news, you have stories about the President using the crime rate in the city as a political chip and tabloid sensational bits that fall just short of proclaiming it the most dangerous place in the country. On television, there’s an interesting dynamic in which the state of the city has become a foundation for “heroic dramas” like “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago P.D.” that are more interested in cases of the week than realism. With all of this attention on the city, where is the drama that could do for Chicago what “The Wire” did for Baltimore? Where’s the show to really get on the ground in this city and capture its vibrant people and touching narratives?
Sadly, “The Chi” is only partially that show, although I'm hopeful it could become it completely. It is a sometimes frustrating experience in that there’s a lot to like regarding ambition and ensemble, but the writing often strains to connect its multiple threads in a way that feels organic. The show’s examination of the cycle of violence in particular feels forced and doesn’t really get to the truth about the way crime intrinsically feeds on itself.
“The Chi” is undeniably ambitious. The premiere, written by Waithe and directed by Rick Famuyiwa (“Dope”) and the best episode of the four sent for review, introduces us to a dozen people all over Chicago, and the remarkably talented cast that brings them to life. We first meet Coogie (Jahking Guillory), a young man who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time, stumbling upon a body before getting arrested by Det. Rick Cruz (Armando Riesco). The arrest leads to the assumption that Coogie had something to do with the crime, setting off a chain of repercussions that serves as the main connective tissue to other characters, including Coogie's chef brother Brandon (Jason Mitchell of “Mudbound”), likable kid Kevin (Alex Hibbert, ‘Little’ from “Moonlight”), player Emmett (Jacob Latimore), and the conflicted Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine).
When “The Chi” is allowed to narratively breathe and just present the daily lives of its characters, it hums with believability. It helps that the ensemble is uniformly excellent. Mitchell is one of those young actors who screams “future star” with every decision lately. If he gets the right parts, he’s gonna win awards eventually. He has a monologue in the premiere that is devastatingly delivered. But he’s not alone. Everyone here works, but especially the wonderful Hibbert and the fascinating Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine. His Ronnie is that guy who thinks love and life may have passed him by and so he makes a rash decision to do something he thinks is right before he gets stuck in his boring life on the corner again. The women are good when given the chance to be, including Yolonda Ross and Sonja Sohn, but they feel a bit underwritten in the opening arc of the series.
The problems with “The Chi” come with plotting. It’s remarkably difficult to tie characters together in a way that feels unforced (and should remind us all how breathtakingly great “The Wire” was at doing so) and the energy of this show shifts when it has to get back to its plot. I vastly prefer the character-driven scenes of everyday life in “The Chi” to the ones in which it’s easy to see the writer’s hand guiding them. Waithe’s point about “what it means to be black and human” feels more refined in the everyday beats like a kid trying out for a school play or another young man forced to find care for his kid so he can go to work. Of course, crime is a major part of “what it means to be black and human” on the South Side of Chicago in 2018—no one is denying that—but it’s also something that inherently feels more like a writer’s contrivance and Waithe and her team can’t quite connect her characters in a way that feels as truthful as the rest of the show.
Having said that, I want “The Chi” to succeed and think it easily could. Again, the cast ranges from very good to great throughout, and shows like this often become even more realistic and impressive as the pitch/concept for the show fades away and the actors become even more comfortable in their roles. I’ll be curious to see where “The Chi” goes when that happens. It may not be “The Chicago Wire” yet, but it could get there.