Cops and Aldermen: A Review of The Chicago Code
- Monday, February 28, 2011
Steven Bochco, creator of numerous television crime shows, such as Hill St. Blues and NYPD Blue, once said that everything on TV is a cop show.
If he was referring mainly to prime time dramas, perhaps he's mostly right. In television's early days, a modern successor to the popular western was crime shows like Dragnet and M Squad (and parodied mercilessly by the Naked Gun movies). Decades of countless cop shows through the decades are a testimony to the public's enduring attraction to the war on crime and those who wage it.
Today's most popular scripted series is NCIS with its investigations into crimes involving Navy personnel. It's a reminder that audiences love their crime fighters to stay on the straight and narrow even if they're mavericks to their superiors. The Chicago Code, a new Fox police drama, tries to break out of the pack with its focus on both crime and corruption in the Windy City.
Shawn Ryan, the show's creator, also produced FX's The Shield, a basic cable show about a corrupt unit of Los Angeles detectives who are as bad or worse than the criminals they pursue. That's pretty strong stuff for broadcast TV and The Chicago Code smartly rearranges its premise to focus on a recently appointed police superintendent, Teresa Colvin, who is determined to clean up both the police department and go after a crooked city alderman, Ronin Gibbons. She enlists the aid of a former partner, Jarek Wysocki , a seasoned and at times brusque detective whom she trusts.
Wysocki, played by Jason Clarke, is an intense and shrewd investigator who has run through many partners from whom he expects near perfection. At a crime scene he knows the right things to look for, seeing what others miss, but Wyscoki grates on his fellow officers with his insistence that they avoid profanity. Superintendent Colvin gives Wysocki free rein to investigate any case where Alderman Gibbons might be involved in corrupt schemes.
This mixture of seamy city politics and crime is rare on network television, and setting it in a real city is even rarer. Colvin and Wysocki have a real challenge in their secret pursuit of Gibbons, who appears to be an effective city leader but may operate at the intersection of mob activity, graft and other crimes. As played by Delroy Lindo, Gibbons is a charming operator, trading in favors, kickbacks and retribution, but Lindo's portrayal is smoothly protean, shifting from seeming vulnerability to viper-like strikes against his enemies.
Colvin and Wysocki find in the first three episodes that they're righteous determination may not be enough to take down Gibbons as he always seems to wriggle out of any situation smelling like a rose. When Colvin puts pressure on a crooked construction company run by a member of the Irish Mob to see if Gibbons will intervene to protect his investment in the enterprise, the mobster threatens to cut Gibbons out of the action if he doesn't call off Colvin. But Gibbons has one of the crooked police officers who works for him plant child pornography in the mobster's house to show how easily he could be taken down.
Colvin's investigators must be limited to Wysocki and his partner Caleb Evers (Matt Lauria) since they don't know who else in the police department or city government may be working with Gibbons. And the rest of the police force only sees that Wysocki has been given the freedom to butt into their investigations without knowing his real mission, creating the misperception of Wysocki being Colvin's favored attack dog.
Lindo is only one of a uniformly fine cast. Clarke is a standout and receives top billing. His Wysocki is a complex guy who is both ethical and calculating. In a chase scene in the pilot, he pulls ahead of the many other police cars drawing alongside the suspect and, knowing the guy wielding the gun, manages to persuade him to pull over rather than risk a bloody outcome. Having lost his brother, another police officer, in an unsolved shooting, Wyscoki later goes to church to light a candle for him. His old Catholic school teacher, a nun, finds him in the sanctuary and urges him to pray with her. He does, but she is appalled when he asks that God will let him find his brother's killer so he can end his life. This Wysocki guy just got more interesting.
Jennifer Beal's Colvin is probably the most challenging character on this riveting series—she is referred to as an officer who rose to the top job in record time, but the gorgeous Beals, who seems to have aged barely a week since her Flashdance days, seems perhaps even more unprepared for the job than the show's creator intended. Her acting skills are fine, but it may take some audience members extra effort to buy her as the top cop, a role more comfortably carried by Tom Selleck in Blue Bloods.
The location shooting in Chicago itself is one of the main attractions of the series—with scenes often filmed in front of the city's distinctive skyline, the production, like the New York of Blue Bloods makes a star out of the city and its environs. The investment in location production, (rather than making Los Angeles stand in for the real thing), pays off because this feels like a weekly feature film in its gritty look, chase scenes and shootouts.
Two questions one must ask when pondering a new series is, "How well is its premise likely to hold up over several 22-episode seasons?" and "Will I want to watch these characters on a weekly basis?" As to the second questions, the nature of network series is that either characters are pretty much the same every week, in an entertaining rather than boring way (the key to both popular sitcoms and dramas) or that they evolve in believable ways over time, a much harder task to pull off. So far, Jarek Wysocki's a compelling and complex hero and Gibbons' antagonist is equally interesting. Hopefully, Beal's Colvin will be developed beyond being the dedicated if somewhat shaky crusader into someone we can believe might have a chance to achieve her goals.
The first question though, concerns me more—will the series remain a battle of wits and bullets over our protagonists' efforts to bring down one crooked official? Even with a particular case to carry the plot along each week, I wonder how long that situation can remain before there's a shift in the status quo, and will the audience hang in there to see it? Shawn Ryan's experience with FX's more risk-taking storytelling was possible because basic cable dramas do around 13 episodes a year, avoiding the risk of plot fatigue and cable shows aim for niche audiences that can be smaller than a broadcast network's. The Chicago Code is a much more costly-looking series than your typical cable drama and it will have to bring in the numbers to justify it's high production values and location shooting. So far, the series is a worthy contribution to the crime series but leans toward the gritty social realism and character psychology of NYPD Blue rather than the entertaining procedural such as hits like The Closer.
Its storytelling resembles the complicated nature of real-life big city crime and corruption and in that sense is in the category of classic movies like Serpico and Prince of the City. The Chicago Code deserves a look by viewers ready for an absorbing and challenging 21st century cops and robbers show.
*This Review First Published 2/28/2011
**Watch The Chicago Code on Fox, Monday nights
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