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Nina Metz: Showtime's 'The Chi' had real potential, where did it go? What Chicago story is it telling as Season 4 ends?

Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

By any measure, hitting the four-season mark is a decent marker of success for a television show. But the Showtime drama “The Chi,” which airs its Season 4 finale Sunday, has been one of strangest examples of a series that started with so much promise, only to devolve into something almost unrecognizable from the show that premiered in 2018.

A drama rooted in realism (at least initially), the show set out to be a portrait of working class Black people on the South Side of Chicago. The pilot episode of Season 1 began with the shooting deaths of two Black teenagers, but as I noted at the time, this isn’t a crime show — not really: It was far more interested in why things happen and the effects that ripple out. How do these experiences shape a person’s state of mind? Their decisions? Their well-being? I was hooked.

Created by Chicago native Lena Waithe, comparisons to HBO’s “The Wire” were inevitable and not necessarily bad; that first episode of “The Chi” promised something serious-minded but also a series that understands all the ways that life can be absurd and strange and funny, even as we navigate stress and instability.

Characters like Ronnie (part elder statesman, part screw-up) and Reg (the charming if erratic drug dealer) were fixtures of the show’s fictional neighborhood, and that had the effect of giving the show a sense of place, even if the precise neighborhood was never specified. My colleague Will Lee and I have recapped every episode of the show since the beginning and our biggest criticism of that first season was the way it had little use or interest in developing its female characters.

Here we are, four seasons later and the show has absolutely improved on that front — the women of “The Chi” are three-dimensional people with their own lives, dreams and frustrations — but the show itself feels completely unmoored and I have no idea what kinds of stories it wants to tell anymore. Only a handful of characters from the first season remain, and the show’s focus on the texture of day-to-day life has been replaced with soapy narratives that ping around like a steel ball in a pinball machine. New characters are introduced, only to be sidelined. New stories are introduced, only to be abandoned. It’s baffling and it keeps you from becoming invested in any of it.

This season, drug kingpin Douda (aka Otis Perry, played with wonderful confidence by Curtiss Cook) is, improbably enough, the mayor of Chicago. One of his first big power moves: Defunding the police department.

This is a radical decision for any mayor, fictional or otherwise. And it’s the kind of big stakes citywide storyline that steers the show away from its initial small bore focus. But I was genuinely excited to see this play out, because the beauty of fiction is that it can show us how new ideas like this might work.

And yet “The Chi” has been weirdly reticent to actually go there. All we’ve seen are two well-meaning characters, with no prior experience in social work or policing alternatives, shouldering the burden of rethinking how to help people in crisis without relying on the police.

This is madness. It’s also irresponsible, reinforcing a perception nobody is ready with ideas if, and when, there is an opportunity to redirect police funds. “The Chi” doesn’t have to be a documentary, but shouldn’t it bear some resemblance to what’s going on in the real world, thanks to activist groups like GoodKids MadCity and others? Not all Black people support police abolition, by the way, where’s that debate?

Nine episodes into the season, I still have no idea why this narrative was introduced and I wonder if there are forces at the studio or network level that led to this watered down, scattershot approach to defunding the police.

By the way, this season also saw the mayor shot and almost killed. This has more or less gone unremarked upon by the show’s characters. Let me repeat that: There was an assassination attempt on the mayor of the country’s third largest city and it’s a nonstory? What alternate universe nonsense is this?! Last week, the mayor inflicted so much violence on his City Hall aide/nemesis that the man might be dead.

This is straight up melodrama and the antithesis of the show’s earlier ethos.

Reading back through our recaps from Season 1, my partner Will had a great observation: “The best part of the show is how these random characters who occupy the same few blocks collide with one another. Death and murder can plague the members of single neighborhood. Lives really can intertwine — I’ve seen it happen. Another great aspect, and one that I know from reporting crime, is that the streets are always watching. Even when you think you’re all alone, someone sitting in a car or someone is peeking out their window or someone doing lookout for the local dealer saw something.”

These details have faded away over the seasons, as have nuanced observations about class tensions, all now buried under an avalanche of credibility-straining storylines.

The show has had three different showrunners over its four seasons, which might account for some of this. But I think we can also trace the show’s challenges to a pivotal moment, when it seemingly went into panic mode after Season 2. That was when star Jason Mitchell was fired due to allegations about his off-camera behavior with his female co-star, Tiffany Boone.

 

There’s no question the show made the right decision. But creatively, it has stumbled since. Mitchell played Brandon, a chef with an entrepreneurial spirit and an instinct for mentoring, and he was the heart and soul of “The Chi.” Without a new lodestar to take his place, the show has been lost. Very little makes sense. It all just feels so empty.

Will and I aren’t alone in feeling that way. Here’s a sampling of some thoughtful emails we’ve received this season: “Like you, I find this season troubling,” wrote Kevin. “I can suspend disbelief with the best of them … but I wondered from Day 1 where Douda’s security entourage was after he was elected, and how he could just move surreptitiously around a major city center without another soul to watch him. Where was the union uprising we know would occur if the mayor of Chicago declared a virtual war on his own police department? And how’s the gang he ran getting along these days? Do they have carte blanche on their turf, now that their former boss is now in City Hall?”

All good questions.

Here’s an email from a viewer named Trina: “When ‘The Chi’ premiered, I became an instant fan. The storyline was captivating and the characters felt real and fresh. The actors portraying Reg, Brandon, Kevin, Jake and Papa more than carried their weight and each character offered voices and perspectives that engaged me and made me care about them. To me the magic of the show was 1.) how community connectedness was explored and displayed and 2.) characters were not portrayed as simply good or bad, they were the sum of their life experiences, good and bad.”

But this season, she said, she has “finally accepted that ‘The Chi’ will never again be the great, groundbreaking, intriguing, classic show that it started out as. The show has no heart anymore … there’s no consistency in anything anymore. The tone and cinematography changes from scene to scene. One minute you feel like you are in a Spike Lee Joint, the next minute you are watching some version of ‘The Real Housewives’ (literally and figuratively).”

That last point is in reference to “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star Kandi Burruss, who joined the show as Douda’s wife, a character who has seemed pointless from the get-go.

“In all of the inconsistency,” Trina summed up, “the show still makes a point to remove all positive images of Black male role models. The show has lost its authenticity and its vibe.”

To her point, the kinds of stories “The Chi” originally set out to tell felt like a meaningful and entertaining counterweight to ignorant stereotypes about the South Side and what it means to be Black in Chicago — capturing the joys, the trauma, the boredom, all of it. But somewhere along the way, the show lost its focus.

Will and I keep watching because we’re curious about how the city is portrayed on TV, but also because the young teens of the show — Kevin, Jake and Papa — have always been a high point, even through this season’s chaos.

The acting on “The Chi” has always been strong across the board; these critiques aren’t about the cast but what they’ve been given to play with. Trans actor Jasmine Davis (a Chicago native) is a real discovery as the maternal Imani. And as I mentioned in our recap last week, the show has done some important things right by casting so many dark-skinned women and teenage girls. Colorism is pervasive in Hollywood and it tends to be gendered — reinforcing ideas that light-skinned women are more attractive — and “The Chi” hasn’t played into any of that.

Earlier this week, Showtime donated $500,000 toward neighborhood beautification projects on the South and West Sides. The cable network hasn’t made any announcements yet about the show’s possible renewal or cancellation. Maybe that donation suggests “The Chi” will be around for another season.

Or maybe it’s an informal goodbye and thank you to a city it’s ready to leave behind.

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