CNN has often appeared starved for star power, but Robert Redford probably isn’t the first name that comes to mind. Nevertheless, the news network has tapped two shows from the actor-producer-activist’s Sundance Prods., “Chicagoland” and “Death Row Stories,” to advance its push into documentary series, theoretically to become less reliant on the news cycle’s vagaries to sustain ratings. Despite solid producing pedigrees and compelling subject matter, both shows come with inherent flaws – the first sure to be derided as a valentine to Windy City Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the latter not much different from the average hour on Investigation Discovery.
CNN’s strategy figures to be under a slightly more invasive microscope due to the recent exit of primetime host Piers Morgan, as the network seeks to redefine itself under chief Jeff Zucker without throwing the baby out with the proverbial bath water. Yet while CNN has backed some intriguing docs – “Blackfish” perhaps foremost among them – these new programs underscore that conjuring such quality in series represents a difficult challenge.
Produced by the team responsible for “Brick City” – a similar effort that focused on Newark Mayor-turned-U.S. Senator from New Jersey Cory Booker – “Chicagoland” takes a multifaceted approach to the city, from Emanuel to heroic high school principal Liz Dozier to colorful Police Commissioner Garry McCarthy (previously featured, incidentally, in “Brick City”). While the narrative bobs and weaves to include gangs, the Chicago Blackhawks and the rich music and comedy scenes, much of the early tension hinges on Emanuel’s efforts to overhaul the public schools, to the chagrin of many parents and teachers groups.
Still, given the rap CNN regularly faces from conservatives for being a liberal mouthpiece, one has to question producing a show that feels like such a paean to Emanuel. “Obsessive. That about sums up all things Rahm Emanuel,” the narration says, by way of introduction.
However flamboyant and outspoken the former Obama and Clinton administration operative might be (he’s described as “Richard Daley with a circumcision”), the headaches hardly seem worth the benefits.
The same goes for said narration by Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Konkol, which is obviously intended to capture the color and flavor of the city, but tends to mix tough-guy cliches with a monotonous drone. “Maybe there’s something in the water here,” Konkol says at one point, referring to the city’s storied history with gangs.
Halfway through the eight episodes, though, the series seems less about water than atmosphere. And while the filmmakers conjure plenty of big-shouldered moments, “Chicagoland” – the name notwithstanding – doesn’t establish itself as much of a TV destination.
“Death Row Stories,” by contrast, is a much more conventional product, despite the stewardship of documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney. Each episode deals with a different death-row case, pushing the clear agenda – as Gibney has noted in publicity for the show – that getting it wrong in this context has the serious side effect of erring irrevocably.
Narrated by Susan Sarandon (making a logical connection to her role in “Dead Man Walking”), the show begins with Edward Lee Elmore, an African-American man convicted of murdering a white woman in South Carolina more than 30 years ago.
Given the movement against the death penalty – on moral grounds and due to its unequal application along various socioeconomic lines, including race and class – the program is certainly provocative and timely. The premiere also chronicles how shoddy police work and a questionable defense might have led to Elmore’s conviction.
Anything that spurs a conversation about capital punishment and its efficacy is laudable. Still, this is such familiar territory for TV and crime-hungry cable channels as to feel like nothing special, despite the attached imprimatur of Redford and Gibney.
CNN is surely feeling its way around as it tries to settle on the proper mix of such regularly scheduled programs, as well as documentaries that hew closer to HBO territory. It doesn’t appear to have found an answer yet, but keep fishing. Maybe it’s in the water.