You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

TV Review: CNN Seeks to Chart New Course With ‘Chicagoland,’ ‘Death Row Stories’

Documentary series try to ease channel's reliance on news cycles


Narrator: Mark Konkol

Narrator: Susan Sarandon

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.

Popular on Variety

TV Review: CNN Seeks to Chart New Course With 'Chicagoland,' 'Death Row Stories'

(Series; CNN, Thur. March 6, 10 p.m. ET/PT)

 (Series; CNN, Sun. March 9, 9 p.m. ET/PT)


Produced by Brick City TV and Sundance Prods.

Produced by Jigsaw Prods. and Sundance Prods.


Executive producers, Marc Levin, Mark Benjamin, Robert Redford, Laura Michalchyshyn. 60 MIN.

Executive producers, Alex Gibney, Robert Redford, Laura Michalchyshyn, David Snyder, Stacey Offman, Brad Hebert; producer-director, Kenneth Lewis. 60 MIN.


Narrator: Mark Konkol

Narrator: Susan Sarandon

More TV

  • Lower lakes with small waterfalls, Plitvice

    Beta Film Boards Refugee and Drug Trafficking Thriller Series 'Amnesia'

    Beta Film, whose Mipcom lineup includes “Agent Hamilton,” “Babylon Berlin” and “Medici: The Magnificent,” has partnered with Croatian production company Drugi Plan on “Amnesia,” a six-hour thriller series about refugee and drug trafficking in the Southeast of Europe. The move adds to Munich, Germany-based Beta Film’s portfolio of Central and East European series, a growing [...]

  • Reed Hastings seen on day one

    Reed Hastings on the Streamer Wars: 'It's a Whole New World Starting in November'

    After dominating the subscription streaming scene for so long, Netflix is girding for a new phase in the SVOD wars with the entry of more deep-pocketed players like Disney and Apple, CEO Reed Hastings said Friday. “While we’ve been competing with many people in the last decade, it’s a whole new world starting in November…between [...]

  • BBC ITV BritBox Streaming

    Viacom's Channel 5 and Comedy Central Join BritBox Ahead of Its U.K. Launch

    Viacom-owned Channel 5 and Comedy Central have joined BritBox, the “best-of-British” subscription streaming service created by the BBC and ITV. The platform, already available in North America, is due to launch on home turf in Britain by year’s end. Under the deal with Viacom, shows from the U.K.’s Channel 5 can appear on BritBox following [...]

  • The-Head

    Behind the Scenes With Mediapro’s Antarctic Thriller Series 'The Head'

    On Sept. 13, the cast and crew of Mediapro’s upcoming dramatic thriller “The Head” gathered at a swanky Santa Cruz de Tenerife hotel to kick off promotional duties for this English-language series, which will wrap shooting later this month. It was day 50 of production, and the cast had been working late, rushing to get [...]

  • The Plague Season 2 Spanish TV

    Telefonica, Atresmedia to Create Content Factory Behemoth

    SAN SEBASTIAN  — In a game-changing move for Spanish-language production Telefonica, Europe’s third biggest telco, and Atresmedia, the original co-creators of “La Casa de Papel,” are uniting to create a new joint contents production giant. Aimed at gaining more scale and uniting talent relations – writers, directors and producers – the 50/50 joint venture will [...]

  • KKR-Backed German Media Conglomerate Finally Has

    KKR-Backed German Media Conglomerate Finally Has a Name: Leonine

    The KKR-backed German media company formed through the merger of Tele München Group, Universum Film, i&u TV, and Wiedemann & Berg Film finally has a name: Leonine. The company revealed its moniker Friday, saying that “Leonine” met its criteria of being associated with its home region of Bavaria and Munich, in southern Germany, and of [...]


    San Sebastian: Leticia Dolera on Canneseries Winner ‘Perfect Life’

    SAN SEBASTIAN —  “La Casa de Papel” (“Money Heist”) may be the most seen of Spanish series this year. Leticia Dolera’s still-to-bow “Perfect Life,” however, is the most laureled, sweeping at April’s 2nd Canneseries TV festival both best series and best special performance for its female leads, Dolera herself, Celia Freijeiro and Aixa Villagrán, from [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content