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TV Review: Lena Waithe’s ‘The Chi’ on Showtime

The Chi” performs an important service: It transforms the word “Chicago” from something approaching an epithet into a three-dimensional place, a city in which a believable array of human beings live their lives and try to overcome the difficulties in their paths.

If the sprawling drama has some issues — and despite its thoughtful intentions, narrative drive unreliably waxes and wanes in “The Chi” — the fact that the makers of the show care deeply about the complexities of the city and the people in it is apparent in every frame.

If only that were true in the halls of power. Anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to national politics in the last few years heard the names of certain cities — Detroit, Baltimore, New York and especially Chicago — uttered as if they were a list of diseases. These places have their problems, to be sure, but in too many instances, the mentions of these cities’ names have served as dog whistles that rely on or even directly invoke racist connotations.

In an affecting episode of his excellent CNN series “The United Shades of America,” W. Kamau Bell offered a smart and honest examination of the city, its problems and the tenacity of its citizens. As a lifelong resident of Chicago, it’s frankly a relief to me when media storytellers go beneath the surface of the Windy City headlines and attempt something more complicated, nuanced and respectful.

Those kinds of impulses clearly drive the creative team of “The Chi,” a series that is still finding itself at the close of its fourth episode. If its ambitions sometimes outstrip its execution, the drama’s generosity and seriousness of purpose give heft to its most successful storylines. Creator Lena Waithe and “The Chi’s” writers and directors come at the city’s vitality and violence from inside the residents’ points of view, rather than imposing judgments from a perch far away from Cook County.

The best moments of “The Chi” are often small, lived-in scenes that feel both specific and human. Alex Hibbert, a standout in “Moonlight,” plays Kevin, a grade-school student whose banter with his two best friends is prickly, affectionate and real. In one episode, the trio of boys go to a girl’s house for an after-school party, where they all try out some new dance steps. The cautious attempts at flirtation and conversation are just about perfect, and earlier, the mixture of emotions Kevin feels as he tries out for the school play — mainly to impress a popular girl — are depicted deftly.

In other story lines, a grandmother has salty exchanges with a relative and a visiting nurse as she resists attempts to patronize and confine her in her old age. The Arab-American proprietors of a corner store and a local detective are depicted as much more than one-dimensional stereotypes. A young father goes through the relatable rite of passage of realizing that childcare is expensive.

Threaded throughout are scenes of three men hanging out in a front yard, and “The Chi” deliberately but intelligently depicts the pressures and aspirations of one of them, Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine). Like Steven Williams, who plays an influential, driven man who returns to the neighborhood with a mysterious agenda, Mwine is a stellar, captivating actor. He brings depth and pathos to Ronnie’s attempts to rebuild his life and bring justice to a grieving loved one.

Two linked crimes drive much of the storytelling in the early going, and viewers get a sense of what those people were like and why those losses devastate their families and many others in the community. Violence in this serialized story is not used as a cheap stunt designed to juice up the proceedings in exploitative ways. It’s treated in “The Chi” as a tragedy that arises from many different kinds of interlocking personal agendas, group loyalties and institutional prejudices. The Chicago Police Department is not depicted as a monolithically evil institution, but the characters in “The Chi” never expect much in the way of help or justice from it — a fact that frustrates a detective played by Armando Riesco.

All that said, the storytelling on “The Chi” that revolves around the police’s efforts to solve murders — or cover up for officers who may be complicit in a larger criminal conspiracy — often feels overly conventional and underdeveloped. There are so many characters and storylines crowding the first few episodes that some don’t get the development and depth that they need in order to stand out. At times, it feels like “The Chi” is trying to pay homage to several seasons of “The Wire” all at once, and it throws in some “This Is Us”-style romance and melodrama along the way. It’s a lot to take on, and the overburdened agenda leads to some draggy sections and awkwardly clashing tones.

But “The Chi” excels at depicting the many different ways in which grief, rage and fear can manifest themselves. Kevin’s a smart, inquisitive kid, and the ways in which his innocence is eroded are affecting. Brandon (Jason Mitchell), an aspiring chef, has big dreams, but a family tragedy mires him in evocatively depicted pain, and his girlfriend fears his thoughts of revenge will destroy their future.

The characters in “The Chi,” most of whom are African-American, generally appear to assume — with good reason — that the city and its institutions are more likely to ignore them and limit their futures than invest in their safety or economic security. And they continue to go to school, make good meals, run businesses, go on dates and flirt with each other at parties. The most memorable characters in “The Chi” are not defined by the worst things that happen in their neighborhoods; these people, and these communities, contain multitudes.

At this point, depicting the breadth and variety of those multitudes is “The Chi’s” most significant accomplishment. And it’s not a small one.

Drama; 10 episodes (four reviewed); Showtime, 9 p.m. Sun. Jan. 7. 60 min.

Executive producers, Lena Waithe, Common, Elwood Reid, Aaron Kaplan, Rick Famuyiwa, Derek Dudley, Shelby Stone.

Cast, Jason Mitchell, Tiffany Boone, Jacob Latimore, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Alex Hibbert, Yolonda Ross, Armando Riesco, Sonja Sohn, Jahking Guillory, Steven Williams.

TV Review: Lena Waithe's 'The Chi' on Showtime

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