Welcome to “Remote Controlled,” a podcast from Variety featuring the best and brightest in television, both in front of and behind the camera.
In this week’s episode, Variety’s executive editor of TV Debra Birnbaum talks with Lena Waithe, the creator of Showtime’s new drama “The Chi,” which premiered a few weeks ago to strong reviews and impressive sampling by viewers.
The show follows five African-American men of various ages on the South Side of Chicago, trying to “live a happy and fulfilled life,” she says. “They all have different ways of going about that. And they all have different things that they want, different struggles that they’re trying to get over… I just wanted to show a real sense of humanity about that.”
Waithe, who’s from Chicago, says she was inspired to write the show after recent headlines about the city. “I felt like people who were writing about the city had never really lived there,” she says. Once she sat down to write it, she adds, “It just started to pour out of me.”
The show represents her debut as a drama writer, given her experience on Netflix’s “Master of None,” for which she won an Emmy last fall. But a vote of confidence from her friend Justin Simien, who read an early draft of the script, encouraged her to share it with the world. “I can’t stop myself from being a comedy writer,” she admits. “There are moments of levity throughout. But I tried to keep a real sense of tone.”
Waithe worked with a writers’ room to help her flesh out her initial ideas for the show, as well as incorporate their own personal stories in the plotlines. “When people expect us to zig, we zag,” she says. “I think that created a really nice roller-coaster of things. We want to keep the audience guessing, but also keep it human and grounded at the same time.”
Waithe used her own life for inspiration as well, and some characters’ names are taken from her own family. Luckily, they approved the final product. “For them to say it feels like Chicago, that was really important,” she says. “What they think means a lot to me.”
What was also important to her was to build a cast that reflects the world she knows well. “We’re living Martin Luther King’s dream by chasing ours,” she says. “I just want to be one of the many voices that are out there…. The more versions that are out there, the more people will understand what it means to be black in America.”
And while her Emmy win has opened doors for her own writing, she says what’s really exciting to her is that she can “walk in the door with another writer, and say, ‘I think this show is worth doing,'” she says. “I’m aware of what me putting my name on something means now.”
You can listen to this week’s podcast here: