Crime and Corruption in the Second City

It has been a while since America’s second city has been spoiled for so much media attention. In the aftermath of Barack Obama’s election as US President, particularly with his strong connections to the controversial new Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Chicago has seen a flurry of news coverage seeking to detail the perennial municipal in-fighting against corruption, greed and speculation. Fox News have, at times, seemed to make it their personal mission to find out exactly which closet houses the most damaging of Obama’s skeletons, or failing that Rahm Emanuel’s. So it seems a potentially provocative move for the Fox Network to give primetime exposure to Ryan’s cop show follow-up to The Shield, the Jennifer Beals vehicle The Chicago Code.

Ryan won much acclaim for the muscular story-telling and ragged urban authenticity of The Shield, a show that also dwelt upon the damaging effects of systemic corruption. The critical bar would have already been raised quite high for any future programme he cared to produce, but a return to the cop show format sees not only the increased potential for unfavourable comparison, but also begs the question as to what else Ryan has in his repertoire. Not only The Shield has raised the qualitative bar on the police drama. HBO’s critically-lauded five-series, Baltimore-based, epic The Wire, showed the potential for extending the scope of the cop show beyond the daily battle with ‘crims’, ‘perps’ and ‘pimps’. David Simon’s textured analysis of the way in which the police and legal systems interact with other facets of municipal society (such as education, the media, local governance, the unions and big business), in effect, drew up a new paradigm for intelligent police drama.

The Chicago Code thus comes to us with a lot of excess baggage dangling from its take on the Windy City’s law enforcement. For Ryan and lead actress Beals it is seen as something of a homecoming affair, as they both grew up in the city. This is a tricky issue to get around, as although knowledge of the local colour can certainly lend a project authenticity, it can also sentimentalise certain aspects of the urban reality portrayed, softening the edges of a drama, in a way that just wouldn’t happen with the coldly apprehending outside eye (even Simon wasn’t from Baltimore, but moved to the city).

The most immediately noteworthy aspect of The Chicago Code is its preference for the high gloss approach of a CSI or NCIS. High-Definition camerawork is used throughout and lends the visual depictions of the city a majestic quality, emphasising that stellar skyline in all of its imposing grandeur. However, it also creates a more obviously cinematic feel that was absent from the in-yer-face ‘realism’ of The Shield, or the sombre, downbeat hyper-realism of The Wire. The Code is obviously Network television and as the medium dictates it must have a degree more bombast and plasticity than its rootsier Satellite predecessors.

It feels almost unfair to draw comparisons as, if anything, The Chicago Code appears to be geared much more toward a straight, no-frills entertainment approach to television. Ryan is clearly not seeking to mine the extensive Machiavellian networks of The Wire, even with his intriguing focus on city hall corruption and the wonderful historical asides that offer contextualization to the series title – The Chicago Code is shorthand for corruption and devious politicking. Whilst any attempts at plumbing some of the societal depths of The Shield is precluded by Fox’s placement of The Chicago Code upon its primetime roster. No, this was always unlikely to be a ‘ground-breaking’ next step in the police procedural, but that shouldn’t necessarily be used as a stick to beat it with.

One thing Ryan cannot fail to deliver are characters with which an audience instinctively believe, even to the extent where they will suspend their potential disbelief at some of the wilder plot machinations and contrivances. The strength of The Shield was primarily the characterisation. Without that bond with Vic Mackey and his various associates, it would have been virtually unthinkable for the series finale to have worked. The Chicago Code is likewise populated by some intriguing characters, prime amongst them the wayward Alderman Gibbons (played by British actor Delroy Lindo) and the loose-cannon cop Jarek Wysocki (another exceptional turn from Australian actor Jason Clarke).

Wysocki is the character through which most viewers will enter into the world of the show. With his various codes of honour, his intuitive understanding of exactly what the job requires, his prickly personality and dogged determination, Wysocki is classic Ryan material and Brotherhood star Jason Clarke fleshes him out charismatically and convincingly. An early sequence in which Wysocki goes to church only to reveal the extents of his agnosticism and also his vengeful desire to bring his brother’s killer(s) to justice, is just the kind of morally ambiguous scene that Ryan has made his own.

However, Clarke’s hard work is rivalled by the equally impressive efforts of veteran character actor Delroy Lindo. As Alderman Gibbons, the man with his sweaty, money-grubbing, hands very much on the city’s coffers, Lindo is an enigma, but an enthralling one at that. Yes, he may well superficially seem an equally corrupt cousin of Isaih Washington Jnr.’s Clay Davis character in The Wire, however Lindo’s Alderman isn’t just about corruption, or what he can get from a situation. Gibbons is constantly preaching the necessity of ensuring that ‘everyone is happy’, the assumption being that he is the man to provide this happiness. The shuttling around of criminal and municipal funds – the Alderman is in bed with the Irish mob – is certainly making Gibbons a rich man, but that is just a byproduct of his ‘service’ to the community that has elected him; a service he hopes to extend to the city when he is appointed mayor.

The Chicago Code’s first, and only, season, is then setup as a cat and mouse game between the powerful and corrupt black Alderman and his wayward police force (as he is also the Police Commissioner), headed up by the newly appointed Teresa Colvin (Jennifer Beals), a bi-racial young woman in what many amongst the rank and file view as an experienced man’s job. Colvin’s early decision to tackle systemic corruption in the police is to go against the snake at the top, who effectively put her in post, as he believed she would be the most amenable to his pressures and his charms (a flawed piece of plotting). Whereas The Shield saw the cancer of corruption spread out and engulf a whole department bit-by-bit, The Chicago Code is a much cleaner and more straight-forward affair, with Beals’ character in particular being the morally clean, beating heart of the drama. This scalpel approach that Ryan has taken, robs the drama of a little heft, making it seem a far too simplistic reading of the various rights and wrongs of a policeman’s lot.

Infuriatingly the show does improve as it hurtles on through its condensed first season storyline and there is an argument to be made that if Ryan had been ‘greenlit’ a second season The Chicago Code may well have got increasingly more challenging and complex. Despite some strong criticism from the boys in blue that it portrays, the series certainly had a certain dramatic flair about it, particularly in its final third. As it is Fox and Ryan have delivered a highly polished police entertainment that falls somewhere between the by-numbers watchability of a CSI and the superior drama of The Shield and The Wire.

With the Chicago PD being the focus of Ryan’s drama, a new show on Universal’s Lifetime channel – a channel dedicated to women’s interest programming – takes a slightly different and generally odd approach to the police procedural. Against the Wall, that has just begun its first season, is a retro-cop drama in the mould of a Due South, or The Commish (Chiklis’ first brush with policing). What is unique about it is that its central character, Kowalski (also played by an all too convincing Aussie in Rachel Carpani), is a young police academy graduate who has just made detective and opts to go to the only department with a vacancy, Internal Affairs. If this wasn’t interesting enough dramatic fare, then the creators complicate things further by making Kowalski that most Chicagoan of characters, a born police officer. Chicago PD has a reputation for being very much a family affair and here Kowalski has three brothers and a father (played by Treat Williams) whom all are beat cops. Thus part of the drama is exploring the rarely seen world of the Internal Affairs officer, whilst the other is mining, in typical Lifetime fashion, the issues of a woman making her own way in a man’s world and going against the express wishes of her male family members.

The show has a by-numbers quality about it, exuding none of the class of The Chicago Code and none of the authoritative realism of an NYPD Blue, Hillstreet Blues or The Wire. Its lead actress is engaging, if a little lightweight and there is a sense that in this first episode the pieces are being rather awkwardly arranged upon the board. In amongst the soft-focus drama there are strong performances from Treat Williams and Kathy Baker, as Kowalski’s mother and father respectively. The end of this first episode does introduce an intriguing element of drama in which Kowalski finds herself having to investigate her own brother (and the only male family member of her family who has any sympathy for her plight). I’m not sure that Against the Wall will see the viewer reaping much of a reward on whatever time they invest, but it at least deserves a mention for trying to explore an area of law enforcement that is too often neglected, or introduced solely as a means of accelerating other plots (Forest Whitaker’s appearance in The Shield, being a great example of the latter). Chicago has many reasons to thank its latest adopted son, but these new televisual offerings, riding along on the coattails of increased interest in the city’s political shenanigans, probably aren’t going to be the best remembered of them.

MINOR-LEAGUE MUSINGS:- Did anyone else find Billy Corgan’s title track for The Chicago Code both irritating and catchy in extremis. Ol’ Cueball Humourlessness clearly thought he was doing a great job with the lyrical shorthand and although it pains me to say it, those lyrics have been drilled into my head over the 13 enforced listens of them – ‘whose gonna drive you home’ indeed.

The Chicago Code ended its season run in May in the US and has since been aired on Sky TV in the UK. Against the Wall is a currently airing Lifetime drama premiere, with, as yet, no plans to screen it in the UK.

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