Saturday, May 28, 2011

TV Episode Review: The Chicago Code “Greylord and Gambat” and “Mike Royko’s Revenge”

My delayed reviews are bad enough, but unfortunately they’ve come during a time window in which Code itself has been snatched from us all too soon.  For those who haven’t heard (if I’m your only pop culture internet stop, you should really surf the internet more...) Fox has officially killed the show without any chance of a second season.  I’ll be honest, I don’t understand how TV ratings work—Code ranks about even with most of the other shows that Fox runs, the difference being that it had a pedigree of creator/showrunner and actors which put it a cut above most of the material Fox traffics in.  Long story short, they had an opportunity to be the network bringing something to television that’s noteworthy (they seem to ignore all of the glowing reviews they get for Fringe as well) and acclaimed for reasons other than billions of mouth breathing pre-teens tune in for it three times every week.  I’m not going to launch into that rant, but just keep in mind:  If you’re a regular American Idol viewer, you’re helping send the message that America’s ideal night of television is manufactured celebrity and manipulative “reality” programming.  It’s your right, but just remember that ratings come from somewhere.

At any rate, given the tardiness of my review of “Greylord and Gambat”, I’m going to be reviewing that episode and the finale within the same space here.  They’ll still be treated as separate entities, but if they’re the last two episodes of this show we get, we might as well celebrate them collectively. 

“Greylord and Gambat”

“G and G” opened with a nicely energetic bit of vigor tonight set to upbeat music and Colvin’s 20-second rehash of the season’s master plot in the broadest sense.  It felt like the writers clutching at potential new viewers to bring back for one more week, which is especially sad given that the gesture was probably hopeless by the time it aired.  For the rest of us, it was an unnecessary rehash of information that even the laziest viewer would know.  Compared to some of the best voice-over openings of the season, it felt like a step backwards in terms of growth, despite the motivations behind the decision. 

The ensuing deposition scenes didn’t help to endear the episode to us either, suffering as they did from the show’s worst habit of painfully obvious dialogue exposition.  In a single scene we’re informed what a deposition is (it’s not the trial!  Ohhh, that’s why the defendant and all those other court people aren’t here!) and made aware that Liam is a sympathetic witness to jurors.  We know he is because one of them observes to Colvin that “he must miss his family” as if she were talking to her neighbor about a son away at college instead of sitting in on a high-profile corruption scandal that would rattle the entire city of Chicago.  Brilliant.  Luckily things pick up rapidly when Jarek and Caleb go to pick up their star witness only to find that he’s decided making a run for it is better than taking the stand against two of the most powerful figures in the city. 

From there on out, the episode shifts into the mode it’s best at—cat-and-mouse type chases and races to the finish.  In this case the stakes are particularly high (the loss of a key witness and possibly a few persons’ lives seem realistically on the line) and the proceedings lack the dulling sense of inevitability which usually comes with episodes like this.  That is, usually when there’s a cat-and-mouse game it’s pretty clear that the good guys will come out on top because, hey, bad guys are interesting, but this ain’t The Sopranos.  Tonight, however, things could have ended up any which way, which added quite a bit to the intensity of the entire episode.  Liam has been a key character, but he’s also been at arm’s length enough emotionally that he could have been in real danger tonight—it would have played as an interesting parallel to Jarek’s brother’s story (and provided further motivation for Jarek to make the whole ordeal personal, though I much prefer the route they did go with his brother’s past in the finale).  Meanwhile, Underwood represents a hard-won victory for Jarek and Colvin, but he’s not the only way of bringing down Killian or Gibbons, so there was no reason to assume they’d bring him in and get the trial back on track in any timely fashion (let alone the 24 hour window they’re given by the mayor). 

One of the best elements of tonight’s episode was seeing Gibbons rattled.  When he gets the news third-hand that he’s being investigated, his immediate reaction is one of dismissal.  He has way too many people under his thumb to not know about such a thing.  Eventually though, he has to call on Colvin’s Chief of Staff to get to the bottom of it.  It was about time they did something with that abandoned character, and this was well worth the wait.  Gibbons leans on him hard, suggesting that he find out who the mole is in Killian’s operation even if it means breaking the law and risking his job.  He eventually comes back with Liam’s name through a clever bit of detective work:  he finds all the names of young cadets who’ve been trained for undercover work and then looked for the ones missing from the ranks as of late.  It’s probably too simple, but it’s also unexpected and makes for a believably quiet route for him to keep his cover with Colvin without suffering Gibbons’ wrath. 

Liam, meanwhile, is still not a compelling character in any human way (why Elizabeth is interested in him is beyond me), but he’s made sufficiently compelling through tonight’s circumstances.  He’s put on the job of killing Underwood for Killian, but he doesn’t know what he’s going to be asked to do until the knife is slapped into his palm.  The scene was executed very effectively; I admit I thought we were lined up for a chase scene in reverse—Liam’s best option seemed to be to run for it before the backup goons arrived and take his chances getting himself back amongst fellow police before Killian’s men could track him down.  So his choice to bury nine inches of kitchen knife under the ribs of his partner in crime is shockingly sudden and shockingly shocking.  Nothing we’ve seen from Liam thus far sets us up to believe he’s capable of something like this, but the moment is entirely believable within the scenario—to run is to leave two (well, one anyway) innocent people to be murdered by somebody else to save himself, but to stay is to either become complicit in murder, become a murderer himself, or reveal himself, which is the equivalent of suicide.  The boldness and confidence with which he then lies to the thugs at the door is equally compelling—the show begins laying everything on the line in this scene and never really looks back (more on that in the season finale review). 

Liam’s trickery to get Elizabeth to give him the files he needs is almost as clever, and the ensuing shootout is executed with the usual expertise we’ve come to expect from the action sequences on Code.  Liam and Elizabeth were something of a cheap plot contrivance to give him access to the exact files he’d need in his final moments “undercover”, but it’s a minor complaint to make against such an effective payoff.  The brief, tense standoff between Liam and Elizabeth makes for great television; I was surprised to hear him appeal to her feelings for him and expose himself as an officer.  Turns out to be a bad choice, but good for you for being honest, buddy.  His return-fire on Elizabeth is also a nice touch for the episode—whatever softness and infirmity we’ve felt in Liam over the course of the season dissolves quite believably during the course of his struggles tonight, and every inch of it feels fairly grounded in the realities of his situation.  On a better show it certainly would’ve been handled more subtly and gradually, but it’s ultimately effective anyway—I found myself pulling heavily for Liam to pull through his ordeal in the hospital, and not simply so he could testify. 

Somewhat less exciting were the long anticipated let’s-dispense-with-the-pretense showdowns between key players.  It’s nice that Colvin gets her crack at Killian once he’s brought in without much hope of getting back out again, but the episode tilts the entire scene too firmly in favor if his smug dismissiveness (again I speak with knowledge of the season finale—it doesn’t seem right that Colvin never gets the chance to rub his downfall in his face, even if he pays the highest price of all for his crimes).  Jarek doesn’t fare much better when Gibbons shows up at his desk after hours offering to reveal his brother’s killer to him as a bribe to make everything go away.  Jarek is firm and smug in sending him on his way, and it was satisfying to hear Jarek call the moment what it was:  An attempt by a desperate man to escape from the corner he’s been unexpectedly backed into.  Overall though, the scene seemed oddly toothless for a show that has been very good at moments like these (especially w/regards to Jarek’s untouchable, shoulder-shrug attitude towards everything).  The final shot of Jarek’s clenched fist—he’s sooooo angry right now!—is almost laughable in its attempt to leave us with a sense of tension.  Most missteps on the show have been verbal, but the final shot tonight completely fumbled whatever sense of foreboding the preceding conversation had set up for the finale.

Overall Rating:  8.9/10

 “Mike Royko’s Revenge”

I’d say it’s nothing short of astounding how much ground Code is able to cover in the final episode while still giving a fair amount of breathing room to most of the more important storylines, and at the expense of all the right things, too—Vonda and Isaac get all of ten seconds of screen time as closure to their moronic character arcs.  Three cheers for the writers for putting that trash to the curb to make room for more important business.  Gibbons’ imprisonment doesn’t feel quite as final as it should (in fact, we really only see him placed in temporary lockup if I’m not mistaken); the final shot was satisfying but certainly didn’t look like a man adjusting to the surroundings he’ll be enclosed by for the next 20 years of his life.  Meanwhile, Caleb gets understandably (but disappointingly) little closure, Colvin is sent off with an incredibly odd choice of final moments, and Jarek gets a more serene outlook than I would have dreamt the show would ever give him. 

It was a satisfying final episode in many more ways than not, and especially satisfying given that it was probably structured for finality on fairly short notice once the writing was on the wall that there would probably be no second season to wrap up any of these stories.  Given the frustrating open-endedness of much better shows than this in their final seasons, it’s hard not to feel satisfied by the sense of contentment provided by the episode in stitching up nearly every loose end.  For the sake of comparison, consider that HBO alone is responsible for robbing loyal viewers of any sense of closure to the practically-worshipped Deadwood and the cult favorite Carnivale, and they also hacked The Wire’s—let that sink in for a minute, they cut The Wire short in its final season—final episode count by three, resulting in a hackneyed montage ending which only hints at the emotional devastation the show runners clearly intended to mete out on an audience fully prepared to embrace the reality of the show’s tragedies.

The episode certainly didn’t skimp on twists and complications in 44 minutes of storytelling, and the show even found ways to reinvent the source of tension several times during the episode.  Bringing in Lily was never going to accomplish anything; we’ve already seen how defiant she is towards any authority figure who hasn’t bought her a pair of panties, but it made for a nice standoff in which Colvin lets Lily’s (accurate) summation of her personal life glance off of her and still find it in herself to offer Lily a place to come to when everything turns cold out there.  It was an effective misdirect leading us into the false belief that Lily would in fact be the key to bringing down Gibbons.  When she instead becomes the gunner who steals Colvin’s star witness right out from under her nose (nice touch that Colvin spots the problem just a moment too late to prevent Killian’s death)  it’s entirely unexpected and yet wholly in keeping with her character’s hurried development.  She’s unflinchingly devoted to Gibbons, which speaks to the show’s efforts to make him seem a magnetic figure who’s hard to dislike (you know how on the fence I’ve been about him, and he is a handsome man…).  When a man of his position and personality sets his sights on a woman like Lily, you can see how he’d have little trouble winning her complete loyalty.  It would’ve made for an interesting thematic concept to explore further next season (imagine the potential for the gender-reversal of a parallel story for Colvin).  Given the untimely end to the show, it was used effectively for what it was while upping the stakes for Colvin and Jarek.

The death of Killian is certainly shocking, but it plays well as a reset on the clock race Teresa is engaged in.  In one of her more clever moments, Teresa casually points out to Killian that his daughter is going down on an attempted murder of a police officer no matter what happens with him, and adds rather heartlessly that she can make sure Elizabeth gets the worst possible experience the system has to offer (which I read as a fairly vicious threat of sexual assault in prison, among other inhumanities) if Killian doesn’t start cooperating.  It’s no big surprise that it works, but it’s an especially clever bit of irony on the part of the show—Killian is nothing but disgusting, vulgar, and sexist when Teresa tries to speak with him the first time, so to see him have to swallow his pride knowing that the prison his daughter will be placed in could easily be filled with guards as perversely monstrous as he is represents the perfect unraveling of his hubris. 

Jarek sticking a gun in his face in the hotel room to find out if he’s the killer of his brother, Vincent, doesn’t hurt either.  Interestingly, Caleb’s final moment of the series of any significance involve providing a fake cover and alibi for Jarek’s illegal interrogation of Killian.  As character arc it reads as “screw the FBI; I’m a loyal cop and a good friend” but it feels unfinished as a storyline.  Jarek never gets much chance to thank him, and it’s the sort of act that normally requires either reward in the form of one turn deserving another later, or else comeuppance in the form of fallout from such a risky move.  As a standalone act, it’s contenting to know that Jarek can fully trust his partner and that they’re both good men who will (assuming Jarek gets his job back) serve Chicago with integrity for a long time.  The fact that we’re reassured of such a conclusion by what is arguably a breach of integrity on Caleb’s part is just another missed opportunity from canceling a show which seemed poised to become something much more nuanced and interesting than it was two months ago.

The only real negative to tonight’s proceedings is that the eventual capture of Gibbons (or rather, the evidence giving them reason to capture him) is more than a bit of a deus-ex-machina in the form of Vincent’s long-lost undercover evidence files turning up right in the nick of time thanks to Jarek going rogue from the police force in order to pursue Gibbons’ suggestion that he knows who killed Vincent.  I suppose that represents a bit of irony—Gibbons attempt to pacify Jarek puts in motion the series of discoveries that leads to the exact evidence they need to put him away—but it more represents a fairly unsatisfying closure to a season-long effort.  For all of Jarek, Liam, Teresa and Caleb’s efforts, it’s an evidence slip in the bottom of Vincent’s mistress’s box of money and other goodies that allows for Gibbons’ arrest.  I’d bet three paychecks that the decision to go this route was based entirely on the desperate need to put closure on this storyline within the season (I’m still convinced that three or four episodes ago they had no plan to capture Gibbons by season’s end).  Regardless of the reason, it offers very little in the way of emotional satisfaction to know that Gibbons was able to outmaneuver everything Jarek and Teresa could come up with and is only brought down by random fate. 

What really matters most tonight, given that Gibbons ends up where he belongs and everyone else we dislike is either dead or in prison (except Vonda and Isaac, dammit), is the farewell bow taken by characters and the show itself.  The episode snuck in a couple more gorgeous shots of the city as reminders of the enormity of what the Chicago PD are fighting for (and against) every day, most especially in a beautiful shot of the city along the shore of Lake Michigan at night.  The episode also utilized the series’ final moments to reiterate the one point that it was getting at least a bit more sophisticated about making in its latter half—the fact that in a big city crime and politics are more intricately intertwined than anyone would care to recognize, and that those tangled webs are probably more detrimental to a city’s health than any form of crime, organized or otherwise, could ever be by itself.  It made Gibbons’ arrest scene that much more wonderful to watch, knowing that in a public forum a crooked official was taken down in the midst of a speech full of empty political posturing targeting the very public officials who then walked into the room to turn the tables on his corrupt personage.  It was also one of the show’s few commendable moments w/r/t dialogue that no one felt the need to deliver an overcooked one-liner or clever speech.  Everyone seemed content knowing Gibbons was about to take the ultimate walk of shame in politics.  It was really a better moment of closure than his half-defeated smile as the cell door closes on him in the final scene. 

Jarek and Teresa’s final scenes were a bit more perplexing, one for the better and one for the worse.  I really liked that Jarek found either sympathy or a sense of closure to a chapter in his life which allowed him to start over with his ex-fiancé.  The final shot of him enjoying a glass of wine on the couch as she plopped down over his shoulder wearing one of his dress shirts (a sure sign of two people in love when it comes to film symbolism) was refreshing and comforting.  Jarek looked more at ease than we’ve seen him all season, and the idea of him embracing a new person instead of fleeing constantly towards the past (Vincent, his ex-wife) was actually a fairly fitting final moment for his character.  It’s practically Shakespearean when compared with Teresa’s inexplicably strange and unrealistic final moment.  Despite a great scene between her and the FBI Agent who has been fawning over her for several episodes earlier in the evening, Teresa instead celebrates her victory and job security (for now) by plopping down at a hotel bar and pretending to be a (gorgeous) floozy from some other town who’s just passing through for the evening.  I understand the message it’s supposed to send about the difficulty of her position, but it’s quite the false dichotomy to suggest that since Teresa can’t date an FBI Agent due to conflict of interests, her only alternative is a meaningless one night stand in a hotel room with a traveling salesman.  It felt like an assault on the integrity of her character to watch her sink to such pathetic lows, and for the life of me I couldn’t explain why they would make such a choice with an otherwise powerful and respectable female figure.  A mixed bag in terms of the final moments of the series, to be sure.

What else is there to be said about Code?  It’s Shawn Ryan’s second failed series of the year, probably as much a result of network meddling and blunt-minded audiences as anything else.  It’s another failed opportunity for the general public to appreciate the gifted actor who is Jason Clarke—few people watched the excellent Brotherhood, his role was gutted from “Wall Street:  Money Never Sleeps” and we already know how poor Code did in the ratings.  It’s also another strike against quality programming finding a home on any of the major networks—shows like Justified, Fringe, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and, to a lesser extent, Chicago Code seem to have no place in the network landscape any more.  Just consider that list for a moment—every show represented enjoyed some level of acclaim, but the only ones not excelling on their respective networks are Fringe and Code, both part of the Fox “Family”.  Why?  Because the big networks demand high ratings week in and week out, which these days means appealing to the broadest possible spectrum of viewers.  American Idol, Family Guy, The Bachelor/ette, CSI: Crazy Sex Crimes You Won’t Believe, etc, eat up the network landscape and drag in giant ratings.  I’m going to be more boldly forward here than I’ve been on this blog and say flat out that the phenomenon represents the growing stupidity of the average American television viewer.  Intelligent, challenging programming like Mad Men survives on a small network where a 1.9 rating is a victory, and shows with non-family-friendly stories to tell are relegated to HBO’s Sunday night lineup where they can’t challenge unsuspecting citizens into thinking about the realities of the world.  Code wasn’t great at any of those things, yet, but Ryan probably had such goals for the show eventually.  He unfortunately set up camp in the wrong place to do it. 

Overall Rating:  9.4/10

Series Overall Rating:  8.7/10

Great Lines, Interesting Moments, Whatnot, and Occasionally What-Have-You:

Gibbons’ mayoral posters look like a high school photoshop assignment for government class.  Back to the drawing board.

“See what kind of bones are being squeezed; see whose bones are being squeezed…”

It seems like they decided very late in the game to make Lily a key to the whole Gibbons case—she seemed more like a symbol of his illicit behavior than an insider as recently as 3-4 episodes ago.

It’s a minor point, but I thought it interesting that they arrest Killian off-camera; seems like a pickup that would’ve played well with some Jarek/Caleb smarminess in Killian’s face.  I’d bet it’s on the cutting room floor somewhere.

Caleb dealing with his first killing is a sad bit of unfinished business—the finale doesn’t have time for it, and tonight really just leaves us hanging (or him hanging, rather) with the internal strife of having killed someone in the line of duty.  Another clue that the final episodes may have been crammed to stuff in some closure of a master plot that won’t see a second season.

The hospital dialogue regarding the ledger that Liam recovered is awful.  “What’s that thing?”  “An awesome piece of evidence, but we need Liam to corroborate it, so it’s going to be very TENSE and SUSPENSEFUL until we find out if he lives.”

I wish the show had a second season in order to explore whatever measure of truth lies behind Gibbons’ assertion to Jarek that “I’m not the monster you think I am.”

Poor, spleenless Liam.  Good to see his family accepting him as a non-criminal now.  Where the hell were they when he was enrolled in the police academy?

The finale’s overly-earnest voiceover is another misuse of the tool, but “Go for the head, that’s where the teeth are” is a great turn of phrase that’s entirely original, as far as I know.

Do public figures actually pre-sign resignations?

It seems like very little, but I thought this exchange was a wonderfully accurate character moment in bringing Jarek and his fiancé back to one another:
“I still hate you.”
“You should.”

“You know what’s in those mercury bulbs don’t ya?” 

“You break it off with the Mexican?” 
“Cuban dad, actually she’s Cuban.”

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