Review: Chicago Code

AKIE BERMISS: It is rare that I am impressed or surprised by network television these days.  Mostly, I think network television has some great comedies and a few entertaining action/thriller shows, but can’t do a serious and compelling drama to save its life.  Now why do I feel that way?  The answer is simple: I’ve watched too much HBO.  I’ve gotten used to gritty drama that is actually gritty and actually dramatic.  I won’t allowed the hackneyed soap-opera writing that passes for prime time drama get a pass just because all the network are sucking at it.  Another reason I feel that way is probably because I don’t watch Gray’s Anatomy (I’ve been told for what seems like a decade now how great it is, but I watched ER back in the day so…) and I don’t consider the hour-long shows that I do enjoy — such as Bones, Castle, and Human Target — to be television drama or crime procedurals.  They are one and all campy spin-offs of the genre.  So I figured after the Law & Order and CSI franchises had done just about every television could do for crime drama — and after HBO’s The Wire pretty much destroyed ALL competition — that perhaps we should just give up hope.

And then, on a whim, I decided to watch Chicago Code.  And I was pleasantly surprised.

Chicago Code is just far enough removed from all the other post-Wire shows that it feels like a genuine television show and not some poor network attempt to make a show in the HBO mold.  Yet it seems to borrow from The Wire’s playbook quite liberally in ways that one can appreciate.  First off, we’re not in New York or California or Miami or all the usual cop-drama places.  We’re in Chicago!  It seems strange that there hasn’t been a recent cop show about Chicago as it is infamous for its history of crooked city officials, police, and various mobs.  Also, they don’t just take NYPDBlue or Law&Order and put it in Chicago.  The city of Chicago plays a huge role in the show even from the very beginning.  There are a ton a beautiful establishing shots of Chicago as segues between scenes and the scenes make sure to feature Chicago’s landscape prominently as well.  So already it was something refreshingly different and nicely executed.

Another thing they borrow from The Wire is the time we spend between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.”  The show establishes early on that there are basically two camps: that of the earnest, hard-working police who are led by Teresa Colvin (played by Jennifer Beals) who is Chicago’s first female superintendent of police and a hard-liner against corruption and, for lack of a better word, wrong-doing.  In the other camp, you Chicago’s organized crime, the crooked unions, the paid-off cops, and the maneuvering government-types  – all of whom seem to be led by a very powerful and corrupt alderman played by the very cool Delroy Lindo.  And in the pilot, they waste no time squaring off.

But there’s also a lot of gray between then.  Colvin and Gibbons (Lindo’s character) are the extremes, but Colvin is also taking Chicago’s police force to task and try to get rid of the old-school cops who’ve stopped being productive or have little scams on the side.  One can see how her perfect and unassailable morality is sure to run in to trouble when she needs to get things done and has to depend on more dubious characters.  Fortunately, for the time being, she can depend on her former partner Jarek Wysocki who while being something of an anti-hero is a perfect night in shining armor.  He is, as they say, natural-born police.  And Colvin appoints him head of a task-force with the long-term priority of bringing down Gibbons.  In the meantime, we get to see him do great police work every episode from high-speed car chases to high-stakes shoot outs.  And that is what a great police drama is made of.

Of course there are the requisite second-tier characters, Wysocki is notorious for getting rid of his partners but in the pilot begins working begrudgingly with a young, talented officer who is doing his best not to get on Wysocki’s bad side.  Wysocki’s got a niece on the force who is a uniform cop.  She’s got a partner who she is obviously also sleeping with and who is also a bit of a hothead and rubs Jarek the wrong way.  Gibbons has a host of movers and shakers who are feeding off of his brilliant machinations.  And there are some excellent police characters who round out the viewers experience of what it is to be a chicago cop.  All are played solidly by actors who COULD see this a fairly big break if the show stays popular and the writing stays good.

Finally, it would appear they took one last note from The Wire and brought in real Chicago police as consultants and even extras.  One of the highlights of the episodes I’ve seen thus far is how realistic and dynamic the crime scenes appear.  Whether they are fresh crime scenes — as when Wysocki and his partner are the first to a bank robbery where the perps have just left — or when, like in the pilot, they take over a crime scene that is a few hours old and have to do real detective work to find the culprits.  Its driving through the streets of the windy city, its jumping up on the El to chase down a suspect, or a couple of thugs in an Irish bar — its Chicago.  This could very well end up being the show to watch this year.  In the last couple of episodes Lindo’s character has really begun to stretch his malevolent wings and its making for great TV.

And, in this day and age, that’s not something to pass up lightly.

JESSICA BADER: I’m generally not a fan of the typical police procedural, with its alphabet-soup title, interchangeable cast, and soundstage sets that are supposed to be some gritty urban locale. When The Chicago Code premiered three weeks ago, I only watched the first episode on a whim, my interest piqued because the show was the brainchild of Shawn Ryan, who had been the executive producer of Lie To Me. I’m glad I did, because I immediately found myself hooked on a cop show that’s anything but typical.

Unlike many TV series these days, The Chicago Code was shot on location, and it shows. The show takes full advantage of actually being in Chicago; the cinematography is straight-up gorgeous, and if you love cities as much as I do it’s a breath of fresh air to see one getting such a showcase on network television.

What really makes the show, however, is how character-driven it is. The cops aren’t just vehicles to solving the crime of the week, but interesting personalities, with flashbacks and voiceovers used quite effectively to help tell their stories. In particular, Jason Clarke’s performance as Detective Jarek Wysocki is masterful. From the very first episode, Wysocki is sketched out as a complex individual, very much a good guy but just as much not an angel (established in the pilot when he cheats on his fiance with his ex-wife in their teenage son’s bed), someone who embraces not doing things by the book (the car chase in the pilot, his enthusiasm for Teresa Colvin’s unofficial task force assignment) but gets annoyed when he sees that in someone else (the hostility towards his niece Vonda’s partner Isaac). In Clarke’s hands, Jarek is a force of nature, making even the things that would seem absurd with a lesser actor (that car chase in the pilot, Jarek’s convenient-for-a-network-show distaste for profanity) make perfect sense.

The interaction between Jarek and Teresa is also something to watch. They’re both deeply committed to bringing down the corrupt alderman and his mob connections, but they lock horns over Teresa’s crusade against the low-performing cops she memorably refers to as “oxygen thieves,” an issue where Teresa only sees black and white but Jarek accepts the shades of gray. There’s a rapport forged by their time together as partners eight years ago and the sense that it’s them against the world now, and a heated intensity to some of their exchanges that makes you wonder if there’s something to those hints dropped in the pilot that they might have been sleeping together back then.

The three episodes that have aired so far have been extremely well written, bringing a large cast of characters to life, dropping little hints that could be developed into full-blown storylines later on (the suggestion of possible romantic pairings, the unsolved killing of Jarek’s brother in the line of duty), and sprinkling in some wry humor. There are enough unexpected twists to keep even a jaded TV watcher on their toes – my jaw dropped in the pilot when Jarek’s visit to his ex-wife’s house was revealed to be a booty call and when a seemingly important secondary character was killed off mid-voiceover, and while Alderman Gibbons ordered a hit on one of his own constituents in the pilot, it was his non-lethal maneuverings in the most recent episode that were truly shocking. Particularly impressive was the way in which the main characters were portrayed as fallible in the second episode, so caught up in their crusade against Gibbons and convinced that he’s behind the crime they’re investigating  that they overlook an obvious lead, while Gibbons finds a way to exploit the crime to make Teresa owe him.

While The Chicago Code is not perfect – I find the scenes with Liam the undercover cop to be a weak point, functioning mainly as a plot device to give Jarek some knowledge on what the Irish mob is up to and to make the viewer wonder how Liam hasn’t blown his cover yet – the strong points far outweigh the flaws, and I find myself anxiously awaiting Monday night so I can see the next episode. The ratings have been decent if unspectacular thus far, and I’m hoping it’ll be enough to justify a renewal, as this is a series with far more than 13 episodes worth of stories to tell.

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