Series Premiere — The Chicago Code, “Pilot”

Because Shawn Ryan’s new police drama on FOX was up for the network’s fall schedule last spring, it feels like we’ve been talking about and waiting for The Chicago Code (formerly Ride-Along) for a very long time and the anticipation has been building. This has probably only been compounded by the fact that Shawn Ryan’s other new series, Terriers, became a fervently loved, barely watched one-season wonder in the fall. With Terriers‘ cancellation, came discussion about Ryan’s ability to work for both cable and broadcast television, as his more well-regarded series have come on cable. But I watched almost all of Ryan’s run on Lie To Me and saw a few episodes of The Unit and had little trouble believing that he could make a cop drama in the same kind of arena as The Shield, only for broadcast television.

After watching the pilot episode of Chicago Code, I cannot imagine that anyone would have concerns about Ryan’s abilities. Although I had a more emotional connection and reaction to Lone Star‘s first episode, I think it is pretty obvious that this first offering of The Chicago Code amounts to the best network drama pilot of the 2010-2011 season.

This opening salvo definitely has a number of pieces to move around in hopes of setting up this world and while it takes just a few shortcuts in that attempt, the execution is generally solid throughout.When you have the city’s name in your title, you’re probably going to want to make sure you represent it well and the strongest part of Code‘s pilot is how it builds up this Windy City world. The on-location shooting plays a part in that and good lord is this episode beautiful. I haven’t seen too much of The Shield, but it’s obvious that the camera work and cinematography on this series are going to be much less gritty and shaky and more sweeping and gorgeous, which I think is fitting. The LA of The Shield feels like a dirty place that needs someone like Vic Mackey working, whereas the contrast between the shiny exterior of Chicago and the seedy underbelly really works to hammer home that this is a place where corruption helps things get done.

For the most part, the lead characters are given the right kind of material to work with that helps in expediting our connection to them. Jason Clarke’s Jarek Wysocki feels like a fully formed character from the jump and his character ticks don’t seem like they were tacked-on because of network notes, he’s just a unique kind of dude and you feel that from the very first scene he’s in. Matt Lauria plays Caleb Evers, Wysocki’s newest partner and there is little of Friday Night Lights‘ Luke Cafferty in his performance. Evers is much older, but still more of a goofball than Luke and Lauria does a nice job in his few scenes of playing those differences out for those of us who’ve seen him in another great role.

Jennifer Beals and Delroy Lindo are playing these two opposing forces that Wysocki and Evers are hoping to work for and against respectively, but their characters feel less developed from the start, but in such an awful way. Beals’ Superintendent Colvin shares a long-standing connection with Wysocki and thankfully the two actors share a great chemistry that makes that relationship believable from the jump, but I’ll be interested to see more of Colvin on her own. Lindo’s Alderman Gibbons is reportedly evil and acts accordingly. I’m sure the shading will come.

There’s been a lot of talk about the voiceovers in this episode and for the most part, I think they work. Although I do think they serve as a bit of hand-holding, they also work to fill in the world of Chicago even more. Obviously they’re intended to give us more information about the individual characters (and thus, the hand-holding), but most of the voiceovers had a sense of history to them that also made this version of Chicago feel more real. Most of the characters have personal experiences with the force dating back a long time and so those little beats give us a bit more about what’s happened in this city, even if the parts about the actual characters don’t seem as relevant to the action at-hand and therefore could be given out at any time later in the series.

Overall, I’m assuming Ryan’s intent was to make this a series that had to be set in Chicago and I think this pilot succeeds in that. Corruption, police work and politics happen everywhere, but there is so much being done here to remind us that this is about Chicago, both historically and currently and it’s pretty much all successful. The little jokes, the setting and the sense of history in the narrative make this a nearly fully-formed world from the very beginning.

Returning to the concerns about Ryan’s ability to balance between cable storytelling and broadcast storytelling, I see this pilot as a fantastic mix of both with a tremendous sense of momentum. It’s unfortunate that the approaches that work so well on cable don’t really appeal to the broadcast audience, but Ryan’s script manages not to lose some of the edges that usually get lost in the broadcast formulation process. There is an obvious sense of scope here, both in setting but also story and The Chicago Code could potentially become a sprawling social commentary not unlike The Wire. But even if it doesn’t go that route, there is most certainly enough to work with on a more close-ended procedural basis from week-to-week, particularly as Wysocki, Evers and Colvin build their case against Gibbons.

We like to think that broadcast dramas, particularly legal or police dramas, fully lack any sense of ongoing momentum, but that’s not really true. Even the most criticized series like NCIS still have character and narrative development, it just happens at a slower pace that on cable character dramas. But with things like The Good Wife and even Blue Bloods, there are some interesting things being done in the traditionally procedural formulas and it seems like The Chicago Code fits right alongside those two series. Depending on the week, this series should be able to balance a open-and-shut case, discuss the larger political concerns and give us a few great character moments, which will serve all sorts of masters without getting too muddled. I wouldn’t expect that kind of thing from all series, but with Shawn Ryan at the helm, I’m not worried in the least. Ryan is one of the medium’s best storytellers and if this pilot effort is any indication, he’ll continue to add to that legacy with The Chicago Code.

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