Tuesday, March 8, 2011

TV Episode Review: The Chicago Code "O'Leary's Cow"

“O’Leary’s Cow” is a curiously named episode.  I was about to call it a misnamed episode, but then it occurred to me that the allusion is to the cow that—according to myth—started the Chicago fire.  That would make the title a reference to Liam and his arson, except Liam continues to be a dull character with no real development (he delivers more obvious dialogue this week, in addition to seeming hopelessly naïve for an undercover agent, simply so Jarek can give him a timely speech about what his job is going to be.  Sloppy.).  But here’s the thing:  despite all that boring expository dialogue and a few other missteps tonight, I remain confident that head writer Shawn Ryan has intelligent ideas about where this show’s master plot is headed (God and Nielsen Ratings willing), and I’m guessing that tonight’s events collectively stand in for Mrs. O’Leary’s cow as the ignition points for whatever firestorm is going to consume our main players for the rest of the season. 

If you think about it, that makes tonight’s episode rather ominous:  Teresa now has a crooked brother-in-law who has gotten her fingers just dirty enough in extortion and other illegal acts to have her kicked out of office if it goes public (and she’s given him reason to implicate her by forcing him to confess), Jarek has pushed Liam deeper into mob commitment, which leads to the death of an as-yet-unnamed person, and Jarek himself has made a couple of interesting enemies in Chairman Lao of Chinatown and his lackey, Mr. Chow.  Lao seemed to go down much too easily tonight, suggesting that maybe his reach will prove a bit longer than expected.  Meanwhile, Chow is scooped up by Gibbons before his old boss has been in lockup for an hour and explains to him that Lao didn’t understand who the boss was, but that if Chow can learn the lesson to be had here, he might be a suitable replacement.  Taken collectively, it’s a good sized list of problems that could burn the whole city to the ground, figuratively speaking, if it’s all allowed to get out of hand.

The best story tonight for me was Jarek and Caleb’s pursuit of the killers of a young black teenager in Chinatown.  Chinese citizens refusing to cooperate with police (and banks) is not an original concept, but it gives Jarek another interesting bit of history:  he’s holding a grudge against Chinatown’s unofficial mayor, “Chairman Lao”, who he’s convinced helped a murderer in an investigation years ago to flee the country.  Lao quietly, and with a restrained dignity that Lost’s Francois Chau pulls off effortlessly, explains that it is in keeping with his people’s culture to handle things internally and without the city police.  As it turns out, what Jarek takes to be aiding a fugitive actually more involves killing and dismembering said fugitive before depositing him in the local lake (since Lao tells Jarek they can find the body there, I assume that would be some smaller lake than Lake Michigan).  Lao is caught after a phone call is intercepted where he tells henchmen to “help them disappear”, which Jarek presumes to mean getting the fugitives out of the country.  Turns out it refers to the same fate as the killer of poor Daniel’s wife and son:  kill them and get rid of the bodies. 

I liked the subtle mislead tonight—Lao seemed closed and distant towards the police, but his motives turn out to be quite different than what we’re led to think—he’s just trying to protect and preserve a type of old world justice that the police certainly won’t stand for (least of all when it’s meted out on a poor kid distributing church fliers).  Ironically, it turns out Lao’s brand of justice is much meaner than CPD’s.  Judging from Daniel’s reaction when Jarek starts pushing too hard about the murders, it seems like Chinatown residents are well aware of what Lao will do if you get on his bad side, which begs the question of whether the good Alderman is also aware of what he’s empowering when he put Lao (and now Chow) into power. 

Lao’s deal with the cops left me with some questions though; most pressing among those being “Why wouldn’t he be charged with a new crime once he admits that he actually had someone killed and dismembered?”  Jarek agreed to reduce his sentence if he helped them find a killer, not a body.  It seems like the new revelation is ignored and only exists as a “gotcha!” punctuation mark to end the storyline.  I could be wrong or missing some nuance about how deals like this are worked out, but given that they now have another murder on their hands it seems odd that they’re still content to give the Chairman the slap on the wrist sentence that he seems almost amused at (which again makes me wonder whether there won’t be more repercussions to this week’s proceedings as the season unfolds). 

Colvin’s side story has the potential to stoke much bigger and more dangerous flames in coming episodes, but it didn’t play nearly as well as the Chinatown story.  For starters, the audacity of her brother-in-law Robert in taking it upon himself to extort $50,000 out of his “buddy” who runs a parking lot based on the blind promise that he can get his Police Superintendent sister-in-law to make a competitor disappear based on some vague notion that he’s running money laundering is vaguely ridiculous.  I’m sure there are certainly people this reckless and foolish in the world, but I would think that he or his wife would know Teresa well enough to realize that she hangs her career hat upon the notion of being upstanding and ethical and demanding the same of others (especially if he feels close enough to her to ask this favor), so the idea that he would collect that much money on the assumption of her assistance just doesn’t play very well as a plot starter.  His aggressiveness with her when she doesn’t move fast enough is even sillier; a grown man with a career police officer in his family doesn’t understand the law well enough to realize that Teresa isn’t going to look at the case before noon of the same day he asks her about it?  Not to mention that it seems pretty obvious that she’ll have to build a case against the guy which could take quite some time before actually “shutting him down”.  And don’t even get me started about how self-centered and painfully one-dimensional her sister is in attacking Teresa for having the nerve to not risk a career’s worth of success and achievement because she married the biggest nitwit this side of Lake Michigan.  The whole thing played poorly and I’d say it weakens the season’s overall trajectory if they do what I’m afraid they’re going to do and make it lead to charges of corruption or something similarly unfortunate for Teresa.  You will hear me complain quite loudly in future blogs (I might even switch to ALL CAPS) if that’s the case.

Finally, Gibbons gets some interesting moments tonight, though he continues to mostly function as a gap-filler between “good guy” plots.  I’d love to see them squeeze a Gibbons-centric episode in here somewhere before season’s end (I know Cabrini-Green had a lot of him, but he still wasn’t central).  Tonight’s peek into the extent of his reach was rather tantalizing; while the scene of him recruiting Chow as another loyal underling on his payroll played as a dull rerun of events from a few weeks ago, the knowledge that he runs one of the most integrated (as opposed to racially segregated) wards in an otherwise highly segregated city was an interesting revelation that lends more dimensionality to his character.  It seems a foregone conclusion that the good friends and neighbors sentiment of his ward is due at least in part to some underhanded workings on his part, not the least of which is the fact that he turns the other way while his appointed community leaders carry out murders of criminal suspects.  While we’re on that subject, if his ward is so integrated, why is it that Chinatown (which I understand only part of his ward overlaps?  How are these boundary lines drawn?) remains so resistant to trusting the police and are so quick to turn violent when a few troublemaking black youths infiltrate their part of town (and for that matter, why don’t they know that he’ll take care of the problem if he’s as popular as he would have everyone believe?)?  That’s a lot of question marks for one plot point.  It’s a lot of question marks for one sentence too though, so who am I to judge? 

At any rate, he has some fine moments tonight where he shows how little muscle he actually needs to flex in order to get what he wants.  When Lao tries to resist his influence in helping Teresa, he barely gets out “You understand—“ before Gibbons cuts him off and says “Nothing.”  As in, I don’t need to understand anything; I’m the guy who put you here.  Lao tries to play one more defensive angle by suggesting he’ll “try” to find the people who killed the boy, to which Gibbons firmly warns, “Please don’t insult me, Mr. Lao.”  He’s a force to be reckoned with in all things political—this much becomes even clearer during tonight’s proceedings.  Further evidenced when Teresa tries to play the political angle to elicit Gibbons’ help in the first place and he dismisses her coercion tactics by pointing out that all she had to do was ask nicely.  After their sit down with Lao he dismissively (though respectfully—he has yet to betray his attitude towards her directly) says “It’s in your court now.”

Ultimately tonight was another mishmash of successes and failures from scene to scene.  Liam continues to be nigh unwatchable, not so much because of the shortcomings of the actor but because he’s given the show’s worst dialogue, mainly in the form of expository conversations where he’s used shamelessly to advance our knowledge of what the mafia is up to with barely a lick of effort to disguise the information passing.  Jarek, Teresa and Gibbons continue to be compelling characters and Caleb is becoming a likeable character both as comic relief and as a strong enough personality to volley some energy back at Jarek—an important dynamic for the show in the long run.  As with every episode, the episode is a mixed bag from scene to scene as well—sad moments with Liam after he realizes he killed someone fall flat because he’s a useless character, and Jarek casually brow beating him about his failures seem silly given that Liam couldn’t have been a naïve greenhorn when they inserted him into an organized crime ring.  The thinly written bit players (like Teresa’s bro-in-law, Robert) make for very little for the stronger central characters to play off of, which unfortunately is putting a ceiling on how much this show can elevate its game.  Hopefully the next few weeks do something to crash through that ceiling—the ratings need to see the light of day.

Overall Rating:  8.4/10

Great Quotes, Interesting Moments, What Not and Occasionally What-Have-You:

Playing softball with no gloves just seems like chest bashing male behavior for its own sake.  That being said, I sort of want to try it now.

Interesting that cops now get texts about murders on their days off.

Jarek says the murdered kid was “on a mission from God.”  I like how well this show knows its Chicago references (this one from “The Blues Brothers”).

So I know the real problem is the arsonists and their dirty renovation company, but I thought Isaac’s handling of the situation was its own brand of unethical:  he’s quick to flash his gun and police credentials to run competitors off the block—are we to assume he’s only taken this job to crack part of the Irish mob case?  Nothing really tips us off to that.

Jarek’s to Lao:  “Do me a favor and get in my way again.”  A somewhat funny remark, but more fun for how much it tells us about Jarek’s character—this guy will pick a fight with anybody and put his detective skills to the test no matter how big and well protected the target.  It’s the thing I like most about him.

Teresa knows her scotch.

Nurse Natalie is cute and feisty, despite being an annoying cop show cliché at this point.  Good luck Caleb, I’m pulling for you.  Loved when she said “You’re naughty aren’t you?” when Caleb asked for the Chinese woman’s personal belongings.

Nice exchange:
Jarek:  Better cops than you have tried with her and failed.
Caleb:  Did better cops have this smile?
Jarek: (amused at his partner—Caleb’s breaking him down) No, they didn’t.

Line of the night goes to Caleb in trying to woo Natalie:  “Is it my dedication to a wide range of children’s charities?  Because you give the word and I will cut those little bastards off.”  

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