Review: 'The Chicago Code' Shows Potential on an Exciting Ride Through the Windy City
Though much of it set in the world of the Chicago Police Department, it would be unfair to call this worthy drama from Shawn Ryan ('The Shield,' 'Terriers,' 'The Unit') a police procedural. A significant chunk of the story is devoted to police superintendent Teresa Colvin's efforts to combat corruption in the Windy City. To assist her in that lonely cause, the steely Colvin (Jennifer Beals) recruits her old partner, Jarek Wysocki (Jason Clarke), a tenacious detective well known for his headstrong ways.
Together, they take on a powerful alderman, Ronin Gibbons (Delroy Lindo), a very well-connected shotcaller in the world of Chicago politics. This trio of increasingly interesting characters form the core of the show, and, in the three episodes Fox sent for review, any time Beals, Clarke or Lindo occupied the screen, 'Code' crackled with intriguing potential.
Other aspects of the show are more problematic, but 'Code's' growing pains aren't difficult to live with, given that they stem from an excess of ambition, not a lack of it. As a Chicagoan and a former Chicago cop's daughter, I felt the occasional desire to nitpick a detail here or a plausibility issue there, but the show gets lots of things right, and it was impossible not to be won over by how well the drama, which is shot entirely on location, showcased the Windy City and its neighborhoods.
Still, though I respect its willingness to burn through story and not hold back, in its first couple of episodes, 'Code' has a somewhat over-caffeinated pace. There are car chases, action sequences, heated conversations, an array of buzzing plots and a large number of characters to introduce, and layered on top of all that are voiceovers that offer background information on various characters and also serve as commentaries on the action.
On some shows, voiceovers serve as lazy exposition devices, but that's not the case here. In the main, the 'Code' commentaries are well-written and graceful, and in one case, pretty clever. But the use of the voiceovers varies. There are quite a few of them in the first episode, but by the time the third episode rolled around, I'd almost forgotten the show used them and they were slightly jarring when they popped up. By that point, 'Code' was doing such a good job of illuminating the characters and their dilemmas that I wasn't sure the added commentary was necessary.
Still, that twisty third episode, which slowed down enough to let these hard-charging characters collude and collide in more meaningful ways, made me think 'The Chicago Code' might one day blossom into something as addictive as 'The Shield.'
Perhaps a more apt comparison is to 'The Good Wife,' another show that deftly bridges the gap between ambitious cable fare and broadly appealing mainstream drama by smartly swiping elements from both arenas. Like 'The Good Wife,' 'Code' has style to spare and mixes the ambiguity often seen on cable dramas with the appealing quests of essentially good lead characters. As was the case with that CBS show, 'Code' is solid at its start but may need a little while to figure out how to deploy its best assets in even more satisfying ways.
Having actors as magnetic as Beals, Clarke and Lindo, for instance, means that my attention flagged when less interesting characters took center stage. Wysocki's neice, Vonda (Devin Kelley), and her cop partner, Isaac (Todd Williams), fill out some of the police stories, but those characters seem like refugees from a more predictable cop show and don't stand out in any meaningful way. Another thread about an undercover officer infiltrating the Irish mob isn't really interesting in and of itself; it's only compelling when Wysocki or Colvin parachute into that story.
Matt Lauria from 'Friday Night Lights' is excellent as Wysocki's partner, Caleb Evers, but the show has so many bases to cover and stories to tell that that he doesn't get a lot to do in the first three hours. But just as Lindo got something of a showcase in 'Code's' third episode, presumably we'll see more of the nervous but determined Evers as the show goes forward.
It may be an odd comparison, but it wouldn't be a bad thing if 'The Chicago Code' followed the path of another Fox drama, 'Fringe,' which started out with an intensity that sometimes strayed into bombast but eventually developed into a heartbreaking, addictive character study. No doubt Fox executives want 'Code' to score higher ratings than 'Fringe' is getting now, hence the action-packed, almost frenetic tone of 'Code's' early episodes.
But Ryan has proved, especially with 'The Shield,' that he can deliver both tightly crafted, satisfyingly plotted standalone episodes and insightful ongoing stories about complicated people in situations they can't quite control. So far there are reasons to think that 'Code' might be able to deliver on those scores going forward (and quite possibly find its groove more quickly than 'Fringe' did in its first couple of seasons).
After all, the ideas that emerge in the first few 'Code' episodes are tantalizingly complex: The fact is, Colvin and Wysocki are sometimes their own worst enemies, and their most persistent personality flaws are also their chief strengths.
Colvin is virtuous, tough and has a formidable will, but she's so obsessed with her plans for reform that she's sometimes naive and unrealistic. Like many idealists, she fails to see the bigger picture. Wysocki has a lot of energy and drive -- he often charges through scenes like he's about to head-butt someone -- but when he acts and reacts without thinking, that rashness sometimes rebounds on him in ways he didn't expect. As a great conversation scene at the end of the second episode shows, Wysocki wants to do the right thing, but painful events in his past haven't exactly made him prone to introspection.
There's a lot of potential in the push-pull of Colvin and Wysocki's status as both outsiders and insiders; they've both risen high in their professions, but, for various reasons, they're feared or suspected by many of the people around them. And so, of course, these underdogs tilt at the biggest windmills they can find.
For a show about a big city with big problems, it's a fascinating place to start from.
Ryan McGee and I also talked about our reactions to 'The Chicago Code' in this week's Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast. Last fall, Shawn Ryan came on the podcast to talk about 'The Chicago Code' as well as other shows he's worked on; you can find that conversation here. Look for my interviews with stars Jason Clarke and Matt Lauria in coming days, and check out the stars' conversations with my colleague Maggie Furlong. Jennifer Beals details her relationship with the city of Chicago over at AOL's City's Best.
Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.