Here’s the plain, simple truth: Watching The Chicago Code while attending college in the city of Chicago makes the show mean more and puts a significantly larger burden on the creators to not only get the cop show qualities down while putting a new spin on the genre. They have to make the show feel authentic, in the way that Law & Order lived and breathed on the actual shooting locations in New York City. It wants to make big statements about political corruption, the state of metropolitan police forces and gang violence, while still getting the details like the finer points of the North/South side Cubs/Sox debate correct.
After The Wire, any show that enters this genre is just fighting for second place, but Chicago Code creator Shawn Ryan, the man behind FX standout The Shield can stake a claim at success with this type of material. The great strength of that show was the can’t-look-away quality that Michael Chiklis commanded as Vic Mackey, a Machiavellian corrupt cop, and The Chicago Code has essentially the opposite side of the coin with Jarek Wysocki. He’s Polish because it makes it look like the show understands the ethnic makeup of the city (even though he’s played by Australian actor Jason Clarke), he’s a Sox fan because that’s what his ethnicity requires, but he’s a man of strict morals, high standards, often jettisoning police partners in less than a day’s work. The rest of the characters fill in around Wysocki very nicely, as though locking into place. Newly promoted and Chicago’s first female Police Superintendent Teresa Colvin (Jennifer Beals) cracks down on crooked cops by demoting them and seeks Wysocki’s help in exposing the political corruption of Alderman Ronin Gibbons (Delroy Lindo). Matt Lauria (of Friday Night Lights, in a thank-God-someone-else-cast-this-kid-in-another-show kind of role) plays Caleb Evers, the young detective and closet Cubs fan raised on the North side who barely makes the grade to become Wysocki’s partner. If this all sounds overly complex, trust me, the show manages to handle the clutter very well. There are undercover cops, backdoor dealings, and very quick scenes, but not at a blink-and-you-miss-it pace.
Ultimately, the question of the show’s potential quality breaks down into two separate hurdles: Does the show succeed as a police procedural and does it get the details of Chicago correct? If it’s a good procedural, the show can succeed, but for the show to truly have a shot at greatness, it needs to jump over both and present an authentic picture of the city as well. As far as the genre of police procedurals go, this pilot mostly succeeds, as the show shifts quickly through confessional voice-overs from all the major players, outlining their separate backstories, while unfolding the show’s approach to procedural structure. This voice-over is used to very good effect, even providing a wonderfully tense twist towards the end of the episode.
The structure balances overarching plots with an episodic case-of-the-week; in the pilot the murder of a comptroller on the verge of becoming a whistle-blower surrounding a corrupt Lake Shore Drive construction contract (again with the authenticity). It’s handled in conjunction with the clearly season-long arc of Superintendent Colvin setting up an unofficial task force with the goal of bringing down Alderman Gibbons, set up as the most powerful man in the city, even more so than the unnamed mayor.
When it comes to Chicago authenticity, the show falters just a bit, and only for seeming so over-eager and indulgent in the surroundings that it tries too hard to make everyone believe an Aussie is a Polish, Sox fan cop from a police family. This can be easy to turn down. Right now, the show feels like a network television attempt at The Wire: same plot interweaving, focus on the crime at all levels on all sides, those working to eradicate it and the political systems at play, but without any of the swearing or graphic violence. It’s a promising attempt, and one that could soon demand viewing from anyone in the area.