Sonja Sohn (left), Jahking Guillory (Photo: Matt Dinerstein/Showtime)

There’s little doubt that The Chi is the most realistic depiction of Chicago that television has to offer right now. Although, it’s not like there’s a lot of options when it comes to Chicago and prestige dramas. Sure, there’s an array of Dick Wolf spin-offs, but these hardly attempt to tell the story of a city among the overwhelming soap opera antics and police chases. If anything has come close, it would probably be Showtime’s other Chicago show, Shameless. Shameless, an over-the-top dramedy that would rather go for laughs than explore political issues with any depth, however, doesn’t attempt to present itself as the story of a city—it’s the story of the Gallaghers and their hijinks.

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The Chi has higher ambitions in its pilot, but the episode’s preliminary worldbuilding paints with too broad a brush to give viewers an idea of who really inhabits this world. While it does go beyond Shameless’ playful depiction of Chicago’s South Side, the episode mostly plays into the themes so often heard in the national conversation around the city: gang violence, shootings, and guns. Sure, these are some of the realities faced in the neighborhoods that make up the South Side, but the episode offers too little in the way of character development to move beyond these stereotypes.

Elizabeth Sisson/SHOWTIME

When Ronnie shoots the boy he believes killed Jason, there’s little that inspires sympathy for him afterwards. Why should the audience want anything for him other than a trip straight to jail for killing an innocent kid? We barely know anything about Ronnie, other than his love for Jason and Jason’s mom, which is only explained through clumsy exposition. Jason—and the people that surround him—remain a mystery by the episode’s end, which fails to make the question of who killed him particularly compelling.

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In contrast, the episode does an amazing job setting up the relationship between Brandon, Laverne, and Jerrika. From the moment Coogi biked onto the scene, it was clear that he wouldn’t last long in the show’s universe, but watching his family spiral in the aftermath of his death is the most interesting thread the pilot leaves us with. These characters are the most developed and their dynamic is immediately clear. Brandon’s desire to better himself fuels Jerrika’s resentment. Sonja Sohn’s performance keeps the character grounded; even when the writing does its best job to paint her into an alcoholic stereotype. The episode may have been better served by having this trio act as our entrance point into The Chi’s world.

Matt Dinerstein/SHOWTIME

Sohn is in good company: The Chi features Emmy-worthy performances and a more than capable cast. Jason Mitchell and Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine even flash formidable South Side Chicago accents. In the end, it’s the false South Side visuals that are almost too distracting. In one shot, we see Coogie biking down 79th, the Loop looming in the background. In reality, the Loop cannot be seen from 79th. Chatham, the neighborhood at the center of The Chi, is so isolated from the glimmering skyscrapers of downtown, that it’s an example of the city’s segregation and desolation. The reality of that segregation is removed in the show’s fake South Side, which is actually filmed on the more television-friendly West Side and in Pilsen. Sure, these are touches that will only annoy Chicagoans, but it’s a missed opportunity to showcase the visual segregation and isolation that’s a reality for those on the South Side.

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That seems to be the biggest issue with The Chi’s pilot: missed opportunities. While there’s a lot of promise here, the pilot is too focused on making these Chicago characters relatable and following the prestige-drama format. The stories told almost seem as though they could happen anywhere; the unique Chicago factors are lost. Perhaps the most glaring example of this is in the treatment of the show’s female characters. While Sonja Sohn is capable of doing more with Laverne than the script provides, the other female characters are mere outlines in this episode. The male characters—Kevin, Brandon, and Ronnie—take center stage. The show introduces a number of interesting female characters, but it remains to be seen if they’ll be given the depth of these male characters.

In an interview with Chicago magazine, Lena Waithe says she did this on purpose. She’s asked why she chose to focus on male characters and decided to place women on the periphery. Waithe responds, “Because black men are dehumanized. So much so that when they die, it’s background noise. You become desensitized to their deaths. I want to humanize the fuck out of these young black males.” Yet, the reality is that the lives of black women are lost on the South Side at a rate comparable to black men and their names are rarely turned into trending hashtags like their male counterparts. If black men are ignored, black women have it even worse.

In fact, black female activists in Chicago were central to the #SayHerName campaign, a movement to raise awareness of black female victims of police brutality. Chicago has a history of strong, black female activists and leaders and with black female characters sitting on the periphery, The Chi misses an important opportunity to examine that history and burden in its pilot. Exploring the story of Chicago while excluding black women from the center of that narrative leaves much unseen. Hopefully, The Chi fills in these gaps moving forward, but their omission from the pilot is felt.

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Stray observations

  • Welcome to weekly reviews of The Chi! Even though I live in Chicago, I promise not to be bothered by the impossible L stop locations seen throughout the show.
  • Seriously, are we supposed to feel bad for Ronnie? It’s an interesting choice to introduce a lead character through such a horrific act and I’m not sure really wanting to bone Jason’s mom makes him seem sympathetic.
  • All of the child actors in the show are amazing. Alex Hibbert—who played Little in Moonlight—is an absolute joy to watch. Their performances alone have me excited for the next episode.

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