(Another in a series in which I occasionally check in on series that I watch but don’t regularly write about…)
Applying a singular set of rules for watching a television show is a fool’s proposition, but plenty of people do it all the time anyways. What works for Show X MUST work for Show Y, for reasons that are easy to intuitively understand even while being rather easy to debunk once you recognize the pattern. I tend to be attracted to shows, at least on a critical level, that have a particular destination towards which they seem to be going. For a while, I tried to apply that mindset to “The Chicago Code,” and I’m not sure it did either myself nor the show much good in the early hours of its first season.
Let’s take a step back here and look at narrative momentum, and how it affects the viewing experience. The problem with procedurals isn’t so much that they are “inferior” forms of television so much as they leave little room for interpretation or analysis. There’s little one can add to an episode of “NCIS” that isn’t inside the visual text itself. That doesn’t make it inherently better or worse IN AND OF ITSELF than a show like “Boardwalk Empire” or “The Killing”. You certainly could make that argument, but that’s not one I’m trying to make here. I’m talking about the critical aspect that can be applied to “NCIS” and its ilk.
I’ve come to realize that television shows serve, on a fundamental level, as personal validation for the viewer. This isn’t necessarily a conscious act, or one that affects literally everyone watching television. But in looking at why procedurals tend to soar in the ratings and why those with longer, season/series-spanning arcs tend to suffer in that same arena, the idea of personal validation seems to capture at least some part of that disparity.
Those that watch shows with self-contained plots on a weekly basis are seeking confirmation that 1) they are smart enough to “play along” with that week’s 40+ minute story, or 2) are in fact smarter than those they are watching. Those that watch longer forms of serialized storytelling are seeking confirmation that 1) they are the type of person for whom such programming is intended, and 2) that this is the type of programming that confirms television as a true form of “art” that justifies the time and energy spent analyzing an discussing it.
Do I feel completely comfortable with those widely painted assignations? Of course not. I think there’s a false dichotomy therein, but I do think that false dichotomy exists anyways. Near the end of the run of “Lost,” there was an intense anxiety surrounding the finale, an anxiety that has as much to do with wondering how the show would end as much as how that ending would render judgment on a six-year timeframe spent defending the show. The end of “Lost” turned into a referendum on those on the other side of the screen, not from non-fans but rather those that wanted the show to somehow deliver confirmation that the run was time well-spent.
That’s what I mean by validation: for many viewers, the types of shows they watch often define someone’s sense of self. I think both sides are rife with abuse and self-delusion: plenty of people look down their nose at shows that have plenty of non-ironic elements to offer, and just as many pretend to like shows they don’t understand for fear or seeming stupid or out-of-the-loop. I’ve gone down this road so long here because the way in which “The Chicago Code” turned for me lay in the fact that rather than try to appeal to either Group A or Group B in the categories of validation, it tries to thread the needle between both. This isn’t so much a third rail as much as a third way to try and attract an audience.
At the outset, the show seemed to be about newly instated Chief of Police Teresa Colvin (Jennifer Beals) and her former partner Jarek Wysocki (Jason Clarke) trying to take down Chicago’s most powerful and corrupt Alderman, Ronin Gibbons (Delroy Lindo). That’s a pretty good hook for a pilot, but somewhat problematic for a series. Some early episodes focused on this particular angle, while others seemed most case-of-the-week stuff with Wysocki breaking in his latest in a long line of partners, Caleb Evers (Matt Lauria). Time spent away from Gibbons felt like wasted time, and even stuff pertaining to Gibbons in the form of entrenched undercover cop Liam Hennessey (Billy Lush) felt like static repetitions of the same theme.
The show didn’t exactly know how to balance making Gibbons seemingly invulnerable without making its heroes seem impotent. It’s a tough balancing act for sure, especially when trying to balance an exciting episode versus an unknown number of total episodes over a series run. “Code” received a 13-episode order from FOX, but while that network is known for airing shows none of its direct competitors would, it’s also known for yanking them off the air faster than “American Idol” viewers seem to be yanking off supposed front runners this season. Creator Shawn Ryan and company seemed to view Gibbons as a force for the length of the show’s run, not simply a Season 1 Big Bad. So how to solve the problem?
The solution, so far as I have seen it (I’ve seen everything up through the next two episodes due to air), is to turn the city of Chicago itself into the lead of the show. “The Wire” did this with Baltimore, but “Code” doesn’t seek quite that level of sociology in depicting its actions within its own city limits. When I initially reviewed the show, I’d seen the first three episodes, which hinted at reasons this particularly story could only take place in this particular city, but hadn’t quite landed things beyond Cubs/White Sox jabs and a few location shots. Subsequent episodes have expanded the scenery, and therefore tightened the specificity, of what’s going on here.
“Code” has evolved from a story about three specific cops taking on one specific alderman and expanded it into how their story fits into the overall context of Chicago’s history. The voiceovers, which have been at times brilliantly used but often times seemed like simple hand-holding, have evolved into a way in which characters that know the city’s history in their bones set the scene for that week’s crime tale. An upcoming episode is set during a heat wave, a context that seems familiar enough to many viewers but takes on added significance when one learns about what happened in Chicago in the mid-90’s. I happened to know that story, because I had a roommate in college from Chicago, but it’s a small piece of history that isn’t as widely known as Mrs. O’Leary’s cow but still informs the fabric of modern-day Chicago.
That Colvin, Wysocki, and Evers are products of that tapestry is well and good. That Gibbons has somehow evolved into the perfect example of Chicago’s Darwinian evolution is even better. Rather than simply show the cops’ desire to bust this seemingly untouchable politician, “Code” has complicated matters by turning Gibbons into a figure that Chicago itself may actually allow to exist in order to function. Functionality is at the heart of Gibbons’ modus operandi, a way for him to justify his less-than-legal actions. There’s an implicit sense that Gibbons might recognize his own evil, but also truly thinks in his heart of hearts that he’s the best person for the job. In his mind, he IS Chicago, both what it’s been, what it could be, and all the complications that make it what it currently is.
Having the current state of Chicago, not the ongoing investigation of Gibbons, has turned “The Chicago Code” from a show that can only engage in one area effectively to a show that can tell as many tales as the city has to offer. In that way, it’s not unlike a show such as “Justified,” which similarly mines (pun intended) what viewers think we know about a certain are of the country and flips up the topical layer to reveal a David Lynch-ian level of seediness under the surface. It’s an approach for those that enjoy having a self-contained story in each episode, and an approach that rewards continued watching as the show’s narrative, sociologically-minded tapestry grows ever wider. For as long as “The Chicago Code” continues to mine the Windy City for its source material, I’ll be an avid viewer.
“The Chicago Code” airs at 9 pm EST on FOX.