Tuesday, February 8, 2011

TV Episode Review: The Chicago Code "Pilot"

Shawn Ryan should be a bigger name in television than he is.  He created a little show on FX called The Shield which, had The Wire never come along, would probably still be hailed as the best police drama of all time.  As it stands, it should still probably be viewed as the most important predecessor to The Wire, creating a new type of police show where cops aren’t just heroic archetypes and “bad guys” aren’t always purely evil ones.  The shades of gray Ryan painted the show’s characters and storylines in lent themselves well to one of the more compelling master storylines of television in the 2000s, with Vic Mackey and his task force committing and fighting corruption simultaneously while still managing to be effective police.  The show also foreshadowed The Wire’s revealing and scathing look at the politics of big city police with subplots involving an ex-police chief with political aspirations and a personal grudge, several up-and-coming new chiefs whose optimism is quickly quashed by the larger system in which they’re required to operate, and more than a few episodes where we got to see how the media’s ever-present, ever-subjective eye taints everything the police do.  It was a show slightly ahead of its time, and incredible in its audacity—it often contained moments that would rival even HBO’s most violent and disturbing dramas (one scene in particular probably sent more fans away from the show than any other event in basic cable television history). 

Knowing all of these things about Shawn Ryan’s past work only serves to make The Chicago Code a more difficult show to assess.  At first glance, it would appear that Ryan is picking up where he left off by taking his examination of corruption and dirty dealings to a new level, this time inside of the city offices of another familiar American city’s landscape (“If you can’t love Chicago, you can’t love anything.  This city survived the fire and built the world’s most beautiful skyline.  If there’s one thing Chicago knows how to do, it’s punch back,” Detective Wysocki explains as the pilot draws to a close).  That being said, the show is a far cry from the gritty realism and shaky camera work of The Shield.  Cameras placed amidst the business of a working police station and bustling crime scenes are here replaced by beautiful wide-angle shots of Chicago locations, low angle shots of good looking police, and high-angle looks at crime scenes.  The cold, grim blues and grays of The Shield’s world are replaced by warm golden hues and a flashy style inherent in both the shooting style and all of the characters.  None of this is judgment in either direction, except perhaps to take note that the show seems like a hybrid of the two creative parents who brought it to life:  Shawn Ryan’s unique perspective on police proceedings and the Fox Network’s slick, overproduced calling card style.

If that leaves you indifferent to the show, know also that the pilot goes to great pains to grab your attention in the first ten minutes.  It opens with the most frenetic montage of protection money payments ever, as Police Superintendent Teresa Colvin explains how her father had to pay everyone in the city just to keep his business running and it eventually cost him his business.  It’s an old story that tries to take on the sleekness of the early moments of “Goodfellas” and doesn’t even come close.  But then the show takes an interesting turn—several turns, in fact, at high speed, as we meet Detective Jarek Wysocki as he races to catch up to a police chase of a fugitive he knows well.  When his partner gets alongside the fleeing vehicle, Wysocki stares down the barrel of a handgun and casually ignores it.  As the cars roar along with dozens of police vehicles and helicopters in pursuit, Wysocki simply leans out his window (at 70 mph) and says to the frantic fugitive that he’s going to end up in prison for a long time, but if he surrenders now Wysocki will make sure he gets to “feel his little man’s kick one more time” before going to prison.  The man surrenders, Wysocki leads him—at high speed—to his pregnant girlfriend’s place of work where he proposes to her and kisses her pregnant stomach, gets arrested and hauled away, and Wysocki dismisses his latest new partner for cursing in front of children.  It’s a gimmicky character introduction, but darned if it isn’t a compelling one—Wysocki is a high-energy character, interesting and fun to watch, even if he is a bit larger-than-life (he is). 

In that sense he fits into the show’s overall heightened reality; this is a glossy, shimmering Chicago, not the real city we know.  It’s a place where the city Alderman, Ronin Gibbons (played with confidence and a quiet menace by the excellent Delroy Lindo—his smooth business sense here will remind you of his turn as a slick, dirty business man in “Romeo Must Die”), wears $1000 suits, drinks in his office, and has a secretary who licks his ear on command (if all city jobs had these perks, everyone would run for office—and by “everybody” I mean “me”).  

It’s also a place where Superintendent Colvin can rise all the way to the top office in the city police department in a scant eight years via a big cocaine bust and a lot of hard work and apparently can get away with firing almost 200 lazy officers without drawing much more than a few personal threats from an angry deadbeat cop.  In short, it’s a fun place to visit once a week, especially if you’re going to get to ride shotgun with Wysocki and his partner, Caleb Evers, who manages to win the elusive partner spot by picking out an undercover officer with pure instincts and in spite of rooting for the wrong baseball team and choosing Phoebe Cates over Audrey Hepburn as the all-time Hollywood hottie. 

The show is beginning with a reasonable scope for its master plot, as Gibbons seems guilty of offing the comptroller of a construction company he had some city bids conveniently rigged with.  Her bad fortune was to come to him to explain that as she crunched the numbers she had discovered the underhandedness and felt the need to report it.  Unless the show is intentionally misleading us (I know you, Shawn Ryan!), it would seem the good Alderman is the reason that a man named Jasper paid a lowlife meth head to whack the comptroller and her running partner in mid-mid-morning jog.  It seems a bit too straightforward, but it’s a tasty enough lead to successfully allow Teresa to bait her old partner Wysocki into running with it and seeing just how deep the whole mess goes.  Their interactions are warm and playful, and suggest a past together on the streets that could be fun to learn about in bits and pieces as the season and their complex relationship unfolds (he nonchalantly refers to a dead banger as a “misdemeanor murder” which she lightly chides him for before downgrading the crime to a “traffic violation” because the body was parked in the street—I like to think real murder detectives are at least this callous and witty). 

The show is filled with other interesting concepts and storytelling devices; enough to easily spackle over the weaker elements, at least for a while.  Most notably, the show has taken the tired narrative device of the “reflective voiceover” and multiplied it, allowing different story moments to be narrated by the relevant officer and therefore lending particular meaning to various plotlines which could only be indirectly hinted at given a singular narrative voice.  Note in particular the wonderfully clever moment when the superintendent’s first assistant is shot in the street in mid-voiceover.  The voiceover and accompanying flashback end in mid-sentence when he’s shot down, so we never hear the end of the heartwarming (if a bit “Wire”-ish) story of how Teresa pulled him—repeatedly—out of the beginnings of gang life as a kid and got him into police work.  That gang violence ends his life, his “story”, abruptly anyway is especially tragic and poignant given the clever manipulation of the narrative.
What "awesome" looks like.

Fox has had an uneven record with big budget, excessively polished shows like this—catching lightning in a bottle with the success of Prison Break and Human Target, among others, while failing to grab a permanent sizeable audience with others, most notably some Jerry Bruckheimer courtroom drama that I can’t remember the name of, hence sort of making my point for me.  You should be more than hopeful that The Chicago Code finds an audience and some legs to get through at least a season (and hope doubly that they decide to rerun the pilot if you missed it) because it’s a show brimming with the potential to be something fun, unique, and interesting on the network television landscape.  The cast is full of energy and well rounded with some highly talented newcomers (including a face from Friday Night Lights that you’ll be happy to see in Caleb) and some reliable talents (most notably Jason Clarke, who isn’t a household name, but should be for his performance in the outstanding show Brotherhood, which, at its best, outstripped even The Sopranos for organized crime drama).  It’s a good package, if a bit overwrought in the early going, but the pilot didn’t bore us for a minute and offered a couple of moments that are worth talking about with a fellow viewer, which, if you’re here on the internet reading this, is probably exactly what you’re looking for in a new show.  If so, consider The Chicago Code your find of the season.
Overall Rating:  8.2/10

Great Quotes, Interesting Moments, What Not and Occasionally What-have-you:

Superintendent Colvin is nothing if not ambitious—besides reassigning 200 bad police to safeguarding broom closets, she busies herself forming “unofficial task forces” when she’s denied official ones.

As a Metro Detroiter, it’s hard not to see a LOT of echoes of Kwame Kilpatrick’s destructive corruption as Mayor in the character of Alderman Gibbons—the parallels almost suggest a character study:  the overtly flashes lifestyle and dress of an energetic, vibrant black figure who seems to publicly “wow” the community while stealing from it blindly behind its back; it makes me doubly curious to see where they take the storyline.

“Well the neighbors said they wanted another speed bump,” Wysocki says of the dead body in the road.

Wysocki needs a female partner because “if men can’t “eat it, drink it, smoke it, snort it, or pawn it, they’ll destroy it.”  It would also seem that he prefers female partners because he likes to have sex with multiple partners, but that’s just an observation.

Love the pop culture savvy of the show.  After Caleb mentions “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, Wysocki never lets up on him:  He refers to him as “Spiccoli” and simply “Ridgemont High” and gets in a couple other good jabs without wearing the joke out.  The dialogue here is expertly casual.

Wysocki:  I can’t clean up the city’s plumbing for you.
Colvin:  One toilet at a time.

Great exchange on their cell phones as Wysocki quietly gets information from a Fergus Construction employee while he’s surrounded by his coworkers outside the building: 

Wysocki: Now say “I love you honey” and hang up.
Employee:  I love you honey, bye.
Wysocki: (schoolgirlishly happy, to Caleb) He loves me!

1 comment:

  1. Good pilot. I'll definitely be watching for the next couple of weeks to see where this goes (though I'm not expecting anything up to the level of "The Shield").