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Good Police: An Advance Review of FOX's The Chicago Code

There has been a lot of discussion of late about the creative differences between broadcast and cable, between what's possible at the legacy networks and at the basic cable upstarts.

This conversation can really be traced back to the launch of Shawn Ryan's The Shield in 2002. The gritty cop drama singlehandedly transformed the fortunes of basic cabler FX, establishing it as a home for thought-provoking, challenging fare. That legacy continues to this day, amid a proliferation of original programming at the basic cable networks as AMC, FX, TNT, USA, and others shake up the foundations of television, bridging the gap between the FCC-controlled broadcasters and the wild landscape of premium cable.

Nearly ten years after the premiere of The Shield, creator Shawn Ryan has another cop drama in The Chicago Code, which premieres tonight. But unlike its predecessor, The Chicago Code isn't headed to cable, but rather to FOX. In doing so, Ryan offers up what's easily the best new series to hit the broadcast networks this season, an intelligent and gripping series that brings the best qualities of cable programming back to the broadcasters.

In a season where so many new series played it safe to the point of ensuring boredom on the part of the viewing audience, The Chicago Code is an electrifying and compelling drama that's at once familiar and original.

Revolving around an ad hoc task force investigating corruption in the ranks of Chicago police and bureaucrats, The Chicago Code is the sort of television that more networks should be doing. Eschewing a strict procedural format, Ryan gives us a drama that blends together cases of the week with a strong overarching plot as Teresa Colvin (Jennifer Beals), the first female police commissioner in Chicago creates an unofficial squad to take down amoral alderman Ronin Gibbons (Delroy Lindo).

Gibbons is the worst kind of politician: a glad-handing alderman in the pockets of the Irish mob, who is only too happy to appear on camera in times of chaos or strife while lining his pockets with dirty money. Lindo is magnetic here: charismatic, dangerous, and duplicitous at every turn. Gibbons' overt showiness is at odds with the understated drive of Beals' Colvin, grimly determined to clean up Chicago even as she's making enemies at every turn.

But Beals' Colvin isn't on her own in this war against the political machinery, against the tide of amorality and vice in the Windy City. She rose up through the ranks after working next to her ex-partner Jarek Wysocki (Jason Clarke), a maverick cop who goes through partners like others go through tissues. Few last more than six months, some as short as a day. Wysocki is, as they say, "good police." He's on the straight and narrow and, while extremely temperamental, he's smart and sly and doesn't tolerate fools gladly.

There's a nice rapport between Colvin and Wysocki, even as she makes him an offer he can't refuse: he'll be able to take the lead in any open investigation in the city and help her nail Gibbons. Wysocki has his own personal reasons for this righteous crusade: his father destroyed his career trying to take down Gibbons and his brother was slain in the line of duty by an unknown killer. Does this balance the scales? Is vengeance and justice the same thing? These are questions that loom large around Colvin and Wysocki's investigation.

Wysocki, meanwhile, has his plate full with other matters. An ex-wife and a teenage son, a 27-year-old fiancee that he barely sees, a beloved niece (Devin Kelley's Vonda Wysocki) who is now a beat cop in his precinct, and a new partner in Caleb Evers (Friday Night Lights' Matt Lauria), the sort of green behind the ears detective that gets right under Wysocki's skin.

But this isn't the story of two mismatched cops trying to get through the day.

Wysocki and Evers have something in common, despite their vast differences, and that's gut instinct, the sort of good policing that can't be taught in the academy and which few detectives ever have. Caleb's instincts are innate and the young detective is actually a good match for the fiery Wysocki, who abhors foul language (which explains the lack of four-letter words on the broadcast network).

What follows is at times unsettling, at times funny, and always engaging. By offering an enemy in Gibbons, Ryan and his writing staff have wisely given Wysocki, Colvin, and Co. a clear direction in which to fight, an uphill battle that won't be won without losses on both sides. Fighting corruption in Chicago is a bit like trying to stop a leak in the Hoover Dam with your little finger, so the fact that Colvin has drawn a line in the sand and is attempting to fix the faults of the city she loves (faults which she saw first-hand growing up there) gives her crusade some moral heft.

Cases of the week, each interesting in their own right (such as the third episode's bank robbery), sit comfortably side by side with ongoing plots and character exploration. Flashbacks and voiceover don't often go over well, but Ryan infuses these overly familiar narrative devices with crackle and polish here. Here, the well-crafted flashbacks for each of the characters allow the audience to witness them at crucial moments in their life, moments which define them and their actions, and which set them on the path they're on today. There's an element of causality here which is rarely glimpsed on television drama (outside of, say, Lost), and it helps to solidify their characters very early on for the audience.

Knowing, for example, that Teresa's father's business was ruined by payoffs to everyone from local officials to mob enforcers, gives her drive some real meaning, just as the death of Vonda's father propels her to join the force alongside her father. But, fortunately, Ryan also realizes not to overload the audience with too much information upfront and these flashbacks are spaced out throughout the episodes, rather than all at the top of the pilot.

And then there's the Gibbons plot, the sort of long-arc planning that The Wire did so well in its day. Here, there's a fine sense of intrigue and pacing as the bodies start to pile up and Colvin and Gibbons circle one another, each worthy adversaries in this ongoing war who are forced to work together even as they plot against each other. I'll be curious to see whether the Gibbons arc is the story engine for a series of smaller investigations and whether it will be wrapped up by the time the first (hopefully, of many) seasons wraps up later this spring.

Setting and shooting the show in Chicago gives this already fantastic series another jolt of energy. By setting it outside of New York or Los Angeles, there's a real sense of location to The Chicago Code, which is further served by the on-location production.

Ultimately, The Chicago Code is strong television, anchored by an extremely talented cast and some top-notch writing. The broadcasters would be smart to take note of the fact that it's still possible to tell compelling and intelligent stories in the context of serialized drama without high-concept approaches. At the end of the day, this remarkable series comes down to a few good cops squaring off with the black hats, but it does so with style, grace, and intelligence. Not to be missed.

The Chicago Code premieres tonight at 9 pm ET/PT on FOX.


AskRachel said…
I decided to tune in after reading your review and really enjoyed the show and think it has a lot of potential. Jennifer Beals is a solid female lead and Jason Clarke and Matt Lauria are a good pair. Thanks for the recommendation!

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