The pilot episode of The Chicago Code doesn't simply avoid cliches, but pretty much laughs in the face of them - and that's why I like this series.
In this first installment - which breaks from the tradition of most opening hours being substandard and filled with exposition - we're introduced to a pair of fascinating characters brought to life by magnetic performances. The first is Teresa Colvin (Jennifer Beals, and if you still associate her with Flashdance, you've got another thing coming), who has just months earlier been named the first female Superintendent of Police in Chicago. Spurred by the corruption she witnessed in her youth that drove her father's business into the ground and her parents to divorce, Teresa is now capable of doing something about it. It's clear from the moment we meet her that she's a fighter, whether it's in a city meeting arguing for a task force or in prison negotiating with a gang leader. Refreshingly, Teresa is a cop who just happens to be a woman; the show doesn't expect us to fawn over her for being a woman in power, and it doesn't give us a "butch" caricature. Teresa is a fully formed, successful, smart woman and I love her already.
Teresa's ex-partner, and the first person she tries to recruit in her campaign, is homicide detective Jarek Wysocki (Brotherhood's Jason Clarke). Likewise, Jarek's been around the block a few times and has the attitude to match. He doesn't take anything from anyone, which is probably why he's changing partners every few days. Clarke has the physicality and the voice to make himself all the more intimidating; even on first glance this is not a guy you want to cross. The fact that he's against the use of profanity is a neat way to keep FOX's censors happy, and proves that tough guys don't need to curse every other word to prove they're tough. His relationship with Teresa is interesting and I'm sure there's a lot to explore there, but thankfully, there's not even a hint of sexual tension. (Someone has finally gotten the memo that a man and a woman can be close friends without sleeping together.) It's Jarek's personal life that is the one quibble I have with the show; he's cheating on his much younger fiancee with his ex-wife. That seems at first glance a pretty low move for an otherwise upstanding guy, and I'm curious to see what, if any, justification unfolds. Not only that, but Shawn Ryan's gone down the cheating-spouse road with both The Shield and The Unit already.
Yet that's about the only thing about this pilot I have an issue with. I'm interested in all the characters that will have a part to play, whether it's Jarek's niece, rookie cop Vonda (Devin Kelley) and her partner Isaac (Todd Williams), or Jarek's new partner, the naturally talented but sort of out of his element Caleb (Matt Lauria), or Teresa's undercover officer Liam (Billy Lush). All of these characters seem like they've got stories to tell themselves and aren't just there to fill in space. I was even starting to get attached to Teresa's assistant Antonio before the show went and killed him off. That plot twist was unexpected, and it's the first time this midseason that I actually had to pause and take a moment to process what I'd just seen. As an admitted TV cynic, moments like that don't happen often.
In my eyes, though, heroes are only as good as the villains that they get to face, and the show gives us a damn good one in Alderman Ronin Gibbons (Delroy Lindo). Like the other characters, who he is becomes clear within moments of him being introduced. (Plus, the guy's name is Ronin. "Lordless samurai." Hello.) Gibbons can be one scary dude when he's ticked off, yet at the same time he's not the crazy-eyed, blustering bad guy. He actually has moments of being nice (when it suits him). The audience knows from early on that he's disingenuous, which only makes those nice moments more creepy. And yet, we have to remember that this is someone who's been elected by the people of Chicago, so he's obviously doing something for the community. The series isn't going to let us off the hook easy by giving us a broadly drawn villain.
Yet that's what I love about The Chicago Code, which reminds me of The Wire; it isn't paint by numbers. The bad guys have moments of being good, the good guys have moments of being bad, and the truth of any situation is usually somewhere in the middle. While the series has created good guys we can get behind, and a bad guy we love to hate, that only makes us want to see what happens to them - and we're not always going to like it. I remember listening to Shawn Ryan at the TCA presentation last month and hearing him talk about how this series was going to be more than a cop drama, and from just watching the pilot you get that sense of a full world: it's not just about the events that happen, but the issues that surround them, and the people that deal with them. Like The Wire, the genre is just a backdrop for the compelling exploration of a city. This is the kind of smart, challenging television I want to see.
In a sea of unremarkable cop shows and cliches, The Chicago Code stands out, along with Southland, as a reminder of why I still love the crime drama genre: because when it's good, when it's real, there's nothing else like it.
For more on The Chicago Code, check out the show category at my blog, DigitalAirwaves.net.