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They Got Us Wrong

The new Fox series, The Chicago Code, isn't bad but it isn't Chicago.



Chicago looms large in the mythos of Americana, but that's just it: too often it's myth, not reality. Mayor Daley—the relatively good one, not the dead one—may have railed against the city's continued depiction as a gangland capital, and attempted to erase it by lining the avenues with bike lanes and flower planters. But Chicagoans, with our flair for bluster and bullshit, are all too eager to give French tourists and the like what they want: a little tough talk and a tommy-gun pantomime. The same desire is writ large in the mass media, with the city serving as setting for movies like The Dark Knight. The real Chicago—best captured in Mike Royko's motto "Ubi est mea?"—we keep to ourselves. Consider the Rahm Emanuel ballot debacle, for instance—no movie or TV show is capable of depicting such absurdity.

Debuting Monday on Channel 32, the Fox network's new cop drama, The Chicago Code, is the latest to trade in the old mythos, updated for a new audience. Created by Shawn Ryan, who did the brutally entertaining and occasionally uncompromising Los Angeles-based cable cop show The Shield, The Chicago Code is more mainstream and formulaic in its conflicts, befitting its place on a broadcast network, and almost quaint in its conceits. Ryan grew up in downstate Rockford (don't show me a map, anything not Chicago or its suburbs is downstate), and his show indulges in a sort of arm's-length familiarity that bears little resemblance to what's real. This is a Chicago where "the Irish mob" still rules the underworld, which hasn't been true since the Saint Valentine's Massacre and Bugs Moran—if then. A Chicagoan might expect a show like this to at least get the local usage right—it's "the outfit," not "the mob"—but that's not the only thing it gets wrong. As in the Baltimore-based Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire, the cops here refer to themselves as "police," without the the. Although the Irish do have their tentacles in politics, the main guy running government graft is a black alderman with a penchant for pink shirts and full Windsor knots named Ronin Gibbons, played by shaven-headed and lantern-jawed Delroy Lindo.

True Chicago corruption is mundane, with milquetoast politicians hiring their campaign spokespersons to hand out government contracts to their pals, or jamokes sitting at the steering wheels of idling trucks. But this is the TV version. Lindo's Alderman Gibbons is clearly formidable—the lead street cop in the show says he's "way more powerful than the mayor." And perhaps depicting a Chicago where Miguel del Valle has somehow been elected (as if) the mayor is not even a whispered presence in the first few episodes. This inverts the real Chicago, where "the Irish mob" in the form of the Daleys and Burkes controls politics and co-opted minority underlings do their bidding. In our town, black politicos tend to wear their style on their heads, from Dorothy Tillman's hats back to Clarence McClain's toupees, and Bill Beavers is about as stylish as it gets. Refreshing as it might be to imagine Ryan borrowing a page from reality to have Gibbons call himself "the hog with the big nuts," Lindo's politician doesn't seem capable of that sort of down-home earthiness.

The cops, however, are where the cliches truly flower. Jennifer Beals, whose career has wavered since her wet-dream-of-a-welder debut in Flashdance almost 30 years ago, is actually pretty good as police superintendent Teresa Colvin. She's assigned to deliver the opening monologue on "the Chicago way," which sure enough introduces a city where her merchant father paid off city inspectors, precinct captains, and mob extortionists "until finally there wasn't any money left. It broke my father's heart and cost my parents their marriage." Some 30 years later, Colvin, as the city's first female police chief—hooha! that's a knee-slapper—is in position to do something about it. But she understands she's been placed in power, largely by Gibbons, because she's expected to be out of her depth. This insight leads to some rich dialogue.

"He put me in this job because he expected me to be his puppet," she says. Asked by her Hispanic right-hand man what option that leaves her, she replies, "Cut the strings." Rebuffed by Gibbons when she seeks funds for a corruption task force, she resolves to form her own unofficial investigative unit.

Which brings us to Jason Clarke's Sergeant Jarek Wysocki, sort of a collective dream of what a Chicago cop is supposed to be. He's second-generation, of course, with a niece, new to the force, whose dad, Clarke's brother, died in action (a killing still unsolved, shades of Mulder's missing sister on The X-Files). "I don't appreciate profanity," Wysocki pronounces, especially not in front of kids on the sidewalk watching a bust. He burns through partners the way a beersot pyro burns through a book of matches, and although he has a 27-year-old fiancee (like the mayor, never seen) he's exes with benefits with the fiery redhead recently his wife. He's a Sox fan, of course, who once fought off a mob with a Carlton Fisk-autographed bat, although he'll grudgingly cut his new Cubs-fan partner some slack if he measures up as a cop (not likely). His incorruptibility is legendary—that new partner will soon describe him as "a living, breathing fast pass to the top"—and of course he is one proud Polack.

"Poles broke their backs building this city," he tells his partner over lunch. "There's a lot of history in that sausage."

"I can taste it," replies the rook.

Yeah, has sort of the same flavor as a horseshit kielbasa.

That's not the least of it. In the pilot's opening action sequence, which follows quickly on Colvin's "Chicago way" monologue to wake the napping, he talks down an edgy perp—in the middle of a high-speed car chase beneath the el tracks. "I know this guy," he says to his driver as he cuts the guy off. "He won't shoot me."

Talk about famous last words in any other reality.

That sort of idiotic bravery, however, is just what Colvin is looking for, and she asks her ex-partner—they have a history, natch—to head the task force.

"I'm just a lowly homicide detective," says Wysocki, trying to beg off. "I can't fix the city's plumbing, and neither can you."

"One toilet at a time, detective," Colvin replies.

Wysocki might frown on a little profanity, but he has no qualms about extensive police brutality. This might reflect a certain reality on the Chicago Police Department, but it also turns a blind eye to the ramifications of the Jon Burge scandal.

"There is corruption, and then there is the way things get done," he tells Colvin, getting down to business. "And you need to know the difference."

Yes, there might be a certain authenticity to cops thinking an alderman rigging bids is one thing, a cop thumping a suspect into a desk something else, but that's the sort of hypocrisy Ryan explored so well in The Shield. Michael Chiklis's Vic Mackey was the dark underside of Dennis Franz's more cuddly if no less brutal Detective Andy Sipowicz in NYPD Blue. Mackey fully embodied the self-lacerated rogue cop playing by his own set of rules. For Wysocki, however, it's simply one of the expected benefits of the office, not unlike humping one's ex.

None of which is to say The Chicago Code is a flop. Ryan has a knack for series TV that has eluded writers like Aaron Sorkin and J.J. Abrams, who have created memorable characters and then gone blank on what to do with them. Mackey went through a series of stages, full of self-realization and delusion, and Wysocki may as well. What's more, in the pilot and the first few episodes Ryan has come up with a clever innovation to solve a problem that has plagued police procedurals going back to Hill Street Blues: how to introduce a large cast without everyone getting lost in a muddle. Starting with Colvin's opening "Chicago way" monologue, Ryan gives each character a little voice-over scene explaining where they come from and what they're thinking. Then he uses the device to create a shocking surprise as the pilot goes out with a series of bangs.

That figures to attract audience, and Chicago has never looked as good on TV as it does in The Chicago Code, which unlike Hill Street Blues and ER was shot entirely here and not on LA studio sets, with just the title sequence and odd location shot thrown in for local color. The street-level main corridor of the Cook County Building and City Hall depicts just the sort of maze, with its lines of elevator doors, that an Alderman Gibbons might navigate to his advantage. The el is a frequent backdrop in low-angle crime-scene shots, and in a bird's-eye view of a couple of dead bodies in Grant Park they look like overeaters napping at Taste of Chicago. But for those of us who see these locations all the time, it's not enough. The Chicago Code depicts our city not as the woman with a broken nose Nelson Algren fell in love with, but as a Michigan Avenue shopper who covers up the bruises from last night's domestic dispute with a little extra makeup. Then again, as Algren said, "Any writer whose thought is simply to report the sights and sounds of the city must be some kind of a nut."

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