A funny thing happened to me when I started watching The Chicago Code. I wasn't seeing it the way a lot of people might. You see, I've had a rocky relationship at best with Shawn Ryan's previous shows; I didn't catch on to The Shield until season six, and I'm still trying to forget the disappointing fourth season of The Unit. I mention that because I want to make it clear his pedigree didn't win me over when it came to this series. Nor did the persistent advertising campaign. What turned my head was the final product: a series that is everything the best police dramas should be.
It seems like every other series on television over the last decade has been a cop show, yet as much as I love the genre, it just isn't what it used to be. It's not that hard to kick in a door, pretend to be tough, or use some neat gadget to process evidence. What many of these shows are missing is real substance. The Chicago Code is a complete, complex police drama - the kind that doesn't come around very often anymore.
That begins with the characters: fully formed individuals that we learn about both through their own eyes, and the eyes of others. By the end of the first hour, through some effective voiceovers and their interactions with each other, we have a real sense of who these people are, not just the inkling to be developed that comes in most pilots. At the core of the show are Teresa Colvin (Jennifer Beals), Chicago's new female Superintendent of Police, and her ex-partner, Detective Jarek Wysocki (Jason Clarke). Both of them have compelling stories to tell, and they also have a complicated relationship between them worth exploring. Refreshingly, there's no fawning over the fact that Teresa is a woman, and no hinting that she might end up in bed with Jarek, either. She's a cop who just happens to be female, not a woman who just happens to be a cop, and she's allowed to have a close relationship with a male colleague that is strictly platonic. Of all the female characters Shawn Ryan's shows have featured, Teresa is on her way to becoming my favorite, thanks to that stereotype-breaking writing and an excellent, poised performance by Jennifer Beals, who likewise doesn't need to posture to prove that she's a tough woman; from how she carries herself alone, you know this isn't a woman that you want to mess with.
It's easy to see how Teresa meshed with Jarek, whose blunt, matter-of-fact attitude sees him changing partners every couple of days. This is the anti-TV cop. He's not pretty and perfectly coiffed. He's not going to have a witty one-liner at his disposal. He is not beyond reproach in his personal life (if I have one complaint about the pilot, it's that said personal life reuses a subplot that we've seen before on both The Shield and The Unit), but we know that professionally, his commitment is not to be doubted. Jason Clarke is a great choice for the role; physically, he's no pushover (she says from experience, as he made me look infantile when we crossed paths after the show's recent TCA presentation) and that lends a certain intimidation factor to his character, but he also plays his role with an equal amount of conviction, just like Beals. In the wrong hands, Jarek could look like a self-absorbed, arrogant guy, but the way that Clarke handles him, we see only a man who's confident because he can't afford not to be. Clarke and Beals together make a wonderful team, with the audience able to believe in their characters because they believe in themselves, and in each other. We may not have a clue what's going on, but we know that they do, and we know that we want to see how they put it all together.
The other major aspect that The Chicago Code gets right is that these are cops doing real detective work. They're not standing around waiting for lab results and spitting out technical jargon (sorry, CSI), and they're not out busting heads for no reason other than how cool it makes them look. When Jarek and his new partner Caleb Evers (Matt Lauria) are roughing up suspects, it's because those suspects have given them a reason to do so. The police work in the pilot unfolds the way most police work does - through talking to people and doing honest legwork. There wasn't any part of the casework in the pilot that made me feel as if it was put there simply for entertainment value. Not to mention that though we know there's a bigger picture that isn't going to be resolved for some time, I wasn't seeing a show trying to make itself unnecessarily complicated. I was able to say, "Yes, that makes sense. That's what I would do in that situation. I understand why that happened."
The Chicago Code is also beautifully shot, with a much more filmic quality than The Shield, but still making me feel as if the show needs to be in Chicago and couldn't take place anywhere else. On that note, I know that because of the promos and because it's in the same genre, this show will undoubtedly be compared to The Shield. There are certainly similarities - cops with messy personal lives but committed professional ones, and content that has the potential to push FOX's tighter restrictions - but I'd be loathe to see The Chicago Code have to live in the shadow of its predecessor. For one, when you compare a new series to something that's so revered, you set up unrealistic expectations. For two, The Chicago Code deserves a chance to stand as its own entity. It's the best new show on the midseason schedule.
That's the funny part I was talking about. I finally get it now. I might have missed a lot of The Shield, and I wasn't always completely sold on The Unit, but the moment I heard Shawn Ryan start talking about The Chicago Code, I had a feeling that it was going to be something special. Having seen it for myself, I'm definitely glad that this time, I'm on his side from the start.
The Chicago Code premieres Monday, February 7, at 9 PM ET/PT on FOX. Stay tuned for complete coverage all season long.