There’s a lot to root for in The Chi. The new Showtime drama, premiering this Sunday, was created by Lena Waithe, best known to audiences as protagonist Dev Shah’s childhood best friend Denise on Master of None. (In September, Waithe became the first black woman to win a Primetime Emmy Award for comedy writing for “Thanksgivings,” the standout Season 2 episode charting Denise’s relationship with her mother.) The Chi’s ensemble cast includes both Jason Mitchell, who broke out as Eazy-E in 2015’s Straight Outta Compton and just delivered a wrenching lead performance in Dee Rees’s Mudbound, along with Alex Hibbert, the child actor who portrayed the youngest version of Chiron in Moonlight. The pilot was directed by Rick Famuyiwa, who helmed Dope and was briefly attached to The Flash. And according to Waithe herself, the show takes on an admirable project: fleshing out and shading in the South Side of Chicago, a part of the world held up by our own president as an abstract, racially loaded symbol of rampant inner-city violence.
Yet while watching the first handful of episodes, I found myself wanting to appreciate The Chi more than I was actually appreciating it. The show still has promise, and I’ll continue to watch over the course of its first season in the hopes that that promise will pan out. But The Chi also tends to get in its own way, bogging down lovely, warm, often funny vignettes drawn from its characters’ everyday existence with detours into high melodrama.
The Chi’s pilot is a strong opening salvo, and it accounts for most of my optimism that the show will eventually sort out what works from what doesn’t. The hour plays out as a day in the life of local teenager Coogie (Jahking Guillory). Cruising on his bike, soundtracked by fellow Chicago natives like Noname and Chance the Rapper, Coogie goes about his routine and, in the process, introduces us to his community. He harasses his local store owner for not giving him a discount. He visits his older brother Brandon (Mitchell), who’s left the neighborhood to work the line at a bourgie restaurant and share a bourgie, light-filled apartment with his girlfriend. And while feeding a dog he’s half-adopted, Coogie spots a dead body on the street, then does what any benignly selfish, stupidly gutsy teen boy would do: He takes the dead guy’s chain off his corpse. He’s already dead — what does he need it for?
In just 50-odd minutes of screen time, Guillory makes an indelible impression. Charismatic and agile, he’s the perfect entry point to the South Side’s interconnected patchwork, floating freely between police and criminals, resigned old-timers and upwardly mobile young people itching to leave. The series he introduces would be a fine one, acknowledging the reality of gun violence and gang activity but largely using it as a backdrop for more quotidian, though no less significant struggles: dealing with one’s overbearing, drunken mother (Sonja Sohn, whose presence pushes comparisons to The Wire from likely to inevitable), or all the small but cumulative ways an overbearing police presence makes itself felt.
But that one stolen necklace proves a fateful, and fatal, mistake. In an impulsive confrontation initiated by Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), the slain boy’s stepfather, who gave him the chain in the first place, Ronnie shoots Coogie, eliminating The Chi’s seeming focal point before the show has had a chance to fully coalesce around him. Such misdirection can be an effective means of shocking the audience to attention, as Game of Thrones taught us. Still, The Chi hasn’t yet replaced Coogie as its beating heart, and the hairpin turn into an ugly cycle of retribution and miscommunication his death represents doesn’t always square well with all the other stories The Chi is trying to tell.
Brandon’s aspirations to work his way up the restaurant food chain and eventually open his own place are real, but they necessarily take a back seat to his grief over his younger brother. While he debates how to respond to Coogie’s absence, whether by taking revenge into his own hands or throwing himself back into work, other characters assume parts of Coogie’s previous role as a happy-go-lucky hero with decidedly lower-stakes concerns. Hibbert plays Kevin, a middle-schooler who signs up for the class play to impress his first crush while fending off unwanted advances from her cousin. Kevin’s rapport with his two best friends — one tall and gangly, one “husky” (his preferred term), typically seen flanking Kevin on either side in an inseparable triad — is infectious, and his story is one of the most effective illustrations of Waithe’s thesis. Some adolescent experiences truly are universal, trying to impress a girl among them. (It’s also revealed in wonderfully offhand fashion that Kevin lives in a same-sex household.) As an eyewitness to Coogie’s shooting, Kevin eventually gets drawn into the fray, but he gets to be a kid first. Slightly older but not much more mature is Emmett (Jacob Latimore), a serial philanderer suddenly thrust into fatherhood and the responsibility that comes with it. There’s a great deal of comedy, and karma, in a playboy suddenly saddled with the consequences of his actions. Significantly, Emmett is also the main character furthest removed from The Chi’s primary conflict in its intricate web of interlocking livelihoods, which makes him the character least saddled with that conflict’s problems.
Brandon and Ronnie’s collision course isn’t inherently out of step with the rest of The Chi, but it’s burdened by an overbroad approach that butts up against other story lines’ subtlety. Part of this effect is due to clumsy filmmaking; over the four episodes I’ve seen, I lost count of the times a gunshot is followed by slow-motion, blurring effects and distorted sound. The presentation does a disservice to the nuanced pathos and tragedy The Chi is trying to convey. The characters on the criminal justice side of the show are also significantly less compelling than the residents of the South Side. Coogie’s death is partly caused, then investigated, by the well-meaning Detective Cruz (Armando Riesco); Cruz is somewhat thin, a brooder with a generically supportive girlfriend. His partner, Bill Wallace (Brian King), on the other hand, is a cartoon, a brusque and jaded jerk who brushes off South Siders’ lives as barely worth protecting. Their scenes don’t do much to either illustrate the ethical quandaries of Chicago PD work or document its frequent abuses, many of which have made national news.
With its sprawling, interconnected ensemble, The Chi is simply too big and too ambitious to write off entirely on account of its rough patches; this show also deserves the benefit of some time to work through them. At The Chi’s weakest, the show jerks its audience out of an immersive setting, counterproductively shifting gears from realism to morality play. At its best, The Chi strikes a humanist, vernacular tone that’s seen not nearly enough on television, which all too rarely draws its stories of the urban poor and working class from personal experience. When Waithe draws the audience into her world rather than forcing its lessons upon them, it quickly feels like home.