I Speak TV: ‘The Chicago Code’

Posted: February 17, 2011 in Jeff Holland, reviews, Threat Quality
Tags: , , , ,

When it comes to police dramas for me, the list pretty much begins and ends with “Homicide: Life on the Street.” It wasn’t the first to inject the notion of realism to cop shows (“Hill Street Blues” gets that honor, though that show was before my time), but it was the first that made me realize that yes, being a cop is an honor, a brotherhood, a matter of civic duty and all that, but it’s also a job. A shitty, fruitless, mind-numbing job.

There’s not a lot of busting heads or car chases or shootouts or criminal masterminds or slamming other cops against lockers. There’s paperwork, asking repetitive questions, arresting absolute morons, having tiffs with co-workers and not getting paid very much. “Homicide” made cop-work look like an absolute fucking grind, and as a result made me respect police work a lot more. 

You could make the case for “NYPD Blue,” with its dingy hallways and street-level workings, but by the time I started watching – the end of Jimmy Smits through the end of Ricky Schroeder – the show also ladled on the melodrama pretty heavy, which took a lot of the grit out of it. I had similar issues with “The Shield,” though I have meant to go back to it, having only watched the first season.

(What about “The Wire”? No, “The Wire” gets set aside in conversations like this. I’m not sure there’s a name for what genre “The Wire” is, other than “Great TV.”)

Still, I’ll take any of these shows over the CBS procedurals, which have nothing to say and never felt terribly well-researched or emotionally involving. They’re just…there. They are the diet caffeine-free Pepsi of TV.

(One more quick aside to say “The Unusuals,” the late, lamented ABC cop show, came closest to “Homicide” in terms of showing policework as a job, and I appreciated that aside from a couple homages to “Homicide” here and there, it also carved out its own lighter flavor. It’s on Netflix instant if you want to check it out.)

So with all that in mind, where does “The Chicago Code” fall?

Well…it’s no “Homicide,” – and as much as it would like to be, it’s no “Wire” or “Shield” either – but it’s certainly leagues ahead of “CSI: New York.”

There are a lot of cop-cliches that keep you from immediately embracing it, mostly in the form of the lead detective, who is:

  • Proud of his ancestral roots
  • A lapsed Catholic
  • A die-hard [Insert local sports team] fan
  • Averse to new partners
  • One of a family of cops
  • Dealing with the death of his cop-brother
  • Watching out for his slain brother’s niece, a rookie cop herself, and
  • Stubborn and doesn’t play by the book.

Not helping is that Australian Jason Clarke, playing the Chicago detective, is clearly struggling with the bloo-calla accent he’s using. It ends up sounding like he watched The Departed a dozen times in preparation. So, front and center of this show is a strutting, obnoxious cliché in a bullet-proof vest.

On the other hand, the fact that cops wearing vests in the field – to the point that a major plot element revolves around it – makes me believe Shaun Ryan and company did their research, and given a few episodes, they’ll find a more naturalistic way to show it off. Ideally, they’ll make Chicago a richer setting in general, since despite the title (and the lead character’s “Cubs are da best” yammering), the city feels fairly generic at this point.

Despite these misgivings, here’s what the show does right. With an ensemble cast, Clarke doesn’t shoulder all this himself, and between Jennifer Beals, Delroy Lindo (charming as…well, as Delroy Lindo can be, as a corrupt alderman outlined as the season’s big-bad) and a few new faces that do good work with stock types like “new young partner” and “ambitious patrolman,” it’s a solid cast to watch.

And then there’s the writing. I’m happy to report that the second episode – without the voiceover-heavy burden of explaining the premise – is actually a lot better than the pilot at showing what this thing is going to be week by week. And it’s going to be a strong cop drama with some compelling emotional elements.

So, no. Not “Homicide,” but hardly an embarrassment. I think as the series goes on it will only improve. And unless ratings have been abysmal, it should get at least a season to prove itself, given Fox’s general track record (“Lone Star” aside) of nurturing new shows as much as they can (and honestly – did either “Lie to Me” or “Human Target” actually deserve a second season? So…).

(An aside: Fox’s future lineup in general intrigues me, because they seem to have realized that with “24” gone, they only have a couple of non-“Idol” mainstays. “House” only has two seasons left in it at most; “Bones” isn’t exactly a phenomenon; “Glee” backlash is a-brewin’; and despite the surprising network support, “Fringe” will mostly be considered a success if it can keep from losing its loyal fanbase. So it’s not crazy for them to want to nurture something as broadly appealing, in theory, as a cop drama.)

Next week on the mid-winter new show review-a-thon: I check in with SyFy’s “Being Human” remake.

  1. sebastian says:

    I’ve never been a fan of the CBS police procedurals or even stuff like Law & Order. They’ve always felt weird and authoritarian to me, what with all the breaking of the law to enforce the law and the often beating up of minorities and the poor by self-righteous cynical detectives. I see them like lullabies for old mad white people.

    What do you think of what seems to be the starting of a trend of police procedural mixed with some sort of supernatural element? Not that CSI: Miami is very far removed from “we solved this case via magic”.

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    Between Caruso’s too-red hair and the strange haze of everything to signify “Miami,” I’m beginning to think that one might actually be a fantasy show by now.

    I’m interested in the upcoming pilot season, to see if any of these supernatural-detective-school-city-whatever series that have been announced can be at all good.

    Not that it’s impossible, but the rush of every network to have something like this in development smacks me more as desperate competition than anyone actually having a really brilliant idea that needs to be made into a show.

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