'The Chicago Code' Delivers A Smart And Compelling New Take On An Old Genre
One of the basic tensions in the premiere episode of The Chicago Code, airing tonight on Fox at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, is embodied in the fact that since I saw the first version of the pilot (then called Ride-Along) last summer, they've made a few changes, including the addition of an expository sequence at the very top. That part now comes before a darkly funny chase that used to open the hour.
The new section introduces the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, Teresa Colvin (Jennifer Beals), who takes us through her childhood and her father's struggles as a small businessman in a community full of thugs and dirty public officials. It's a way of reframing the show as being about How Things Are In Chicago in a broad sense, rather than jumping the audience into the back of a police car with cop Jarek Wysocki (Jason Clarke).
I preferred the old opening, but I also understand the thinking. The Chicago Code, for me, is part of a movement on the part of broadcast networks to try to retain the accessibility of popular dramas like CSI and NCIS while grabbing onto some of the creative growth that's gone on with cable shows in the last five to ten years.The expository sequence is a little too obvious for me; it's a little too explicit (okay, it's significantly too explicit) in laying out the theme. (Note that The Chicago Code comes from Shawn Ryan, who previously made The Shield and the much lamented Terriers.)
But while the new opening sequence seems like it's unnecessary, it also establishes more of a frame, and I can easily understand the conclusion that that frame might give people a better idea earlier of what they're watching.
The greater cause for concern, to me, is that a great divide is opening, such that people assume that you have your shows that are fun to watch but critics don't like them on one side, and you have your shows that critics like but nobody wants to watch on the other side. Yes, this started to flare up after the fall failure of Lone Star (which nobody even sampled even though it was the only fall offering that lots of critics actually liked), and it continued with Terriers, the ratings struggles of critically beloved comedies like Parks And Recreation and Community, and FX's latest drama, the (you guessed it) critically acclaimed Lights Out. Seeing critics recommending The Chicago Code makes my stomach turn in terror that it's going to be watched by one of those tiny audiences that kills so quickly.
Critics have done their part to create this dynamic. A critic who relentlessly speaks ill of "the masses" or "the public" or "America" and the uniformly horrible tastes thereof cannot expect that same public to listen to a recommendation. It's true that audiences need to stop claiming there's nothing good on, but it's also important for critics to refrain from talking about all good shows like you need a study guide to understand them, and to acknowledge that formula sometimes becomes formula for a reason, and shows can be forgiven for building in elements that allow for some familiarity. If adding an expository sequence that's a minute or two long keeps a show like this on the air? That's fine.
You do not need a study guide for The Chicago Code. This is not homework television. It is an engrossing, sharply written crime drama full of great acting, intriguing relationships, and an intriguingly complex plot about city corruption. And lest you think I'm saying it's facile, it's far from it. Shawn Ryan is a guy who's interested in institutions, both formal and informal, and that's the kind of cop show it is. That's what he has in common with The Wire creator David Simon, actually — they're both primarily interested in moving characters around within and between institutions and flipping the perspective around to see how an organization might look from two sides. How, for instance, does the job of a possibly corrupt alderman (played brilliantly by Delroy Lindo) look to him, and how does it look to Wysocki and Colvin?
Look, this is a show I've been prattling on about since I saw it in July. I think it's excellent, particularly compared to much of what's been offered up in the last year or so. It's my favorite new drama in a while, and it features a performance from Jason Clarke as Wysocki that I can easily picture as the next long-running awards hog. If that curses it, then ... so be it.
And I will tell you this: There is one moment that takes a storytelling convention of cop narratives and utterly subverts it in a way I think offers great hope for the inventive nature of this project, and I'm not saying any more than that, because I'll ruin it.
If it helps tame the ratings-killing monster of critical praise, there are times when it brushes up against cop-talk cliches — but it generally will retreat again into quirky conversational rhythms like the one between Wysocki and his new young partner, Caleb Evers (Matt Lauria, of Friday Night Lights), as Evers tries to drag him into discussions about hot women and Wysocki tries to explain that he doesn't care much for profanity. (That personality quirk of Wysocki's, by the way, is a clever dodge so that Ryan can give Wysocki the unvarnished attitude of a cable cop without having him swear the a way a cable cop might.)
What I wound up thinking, watching it a second time, is that this kind of show may wind up being what actually elevates what people watch. No, Fox as a broadcast network is never going to put on Damages or The Shield, that's true. But this is a high quality broadcast drama with some of the same complexity and faith in the audience that has improved the quality of cable drama. Is it perfectly so? No.
In my ideal world, I'd lose that opener. But in my real world, I'm much more concerned about the show staying on — as Lone Star didn't, as Terriers didn't, as many shows haven't — than I am about a compromise made to try to make it easier to key into the theme.
There may be a couple of times when they've put training wheels on this pilot, and I may question whether those training wheels are needed, but I'd rather see them experiment with training wheels than wind up in a ditch. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.