This article originally appeared on Crossfader
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
The bar for THE CHI has been set very high. Hot off a historic Emmy win for the most talked-about TV episode of 2017, Lena Waithe is now bringing us a series of her own. Waithe has proven herself to be a master at serving up realness, and as such, I trust her to deliver, regardless of format or genre—especially in this case, since this series is about her own hometown. It’s hard not to go into THE CHI hoping for 10 episodes with as much warmth and polish as the “Thanksgiving” episode of MASTER OF NONE. But THE CHI is a network drama and must be treated as such.
Set in Chicago (try not to think about the latest Kardashian-West spawn), the pilot episode quickly introduces us to a large ensemble of characters in a predominantly black neighborhood on the South Side. The first couple minutes put us at ease for only a short time. With Chance the Rapper blasting, a teenaged Coogie Johnson (Jahking Guillory) bikes around the city streets. But it’s barely three minutes in before Coogie finds a dead body and the cops catch him taking the dead boy’s sneakers and necklace. Things get real, real fast. Right off the bat, and for the rest of the 60-minute run time, we’re constantly reminded not to get too comfortable. The incident causes a chain of events that throws off the lives of Coogie’s brother and aspiring chef Brandon (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON’s Jason Mitchell), school boy Kevin (MOONLIGHT’s Alex Hibbert), lonely older man Ronnie (Ntare Mwine), and three-time baby daddy Emmett (Jacob Latimore).
This peaceful moment lasts about 180 seconds
The quality of the writing shines in this first episode, very cleanly setting up the series in the first few minutes and introducing each character with thoughtfulness and care. It can be difficult to find stories about these types of neighbourhoods without veering into afterschool special territory, but there isn’t a hint of condescension in the way these characters’ stories are told. It’s nice to see a show about the inner-city that isn’t trying to be something. The tension is high and danger is often imminent, but these feel like real lives. It’s of course normal to see a preteen student like Kevin worry about whether or not a girl likes him and his nervousness when auditioning for the school play. But his everyday worries are coated with a layer of fear when he gets wrapped up in some scary shit that forces him to act older than he is, leading him to make some tough choices for the sake of his own survival. There are no heroes or villains, only people trying to do the right thing and keep their heads above water. Emmett’s reckless behavior is at times frustrating, but the human behind the irresponsible choices shines through. Characters that could easily be portrayed as caricatures are given the right amount of complexity.
That being said, one of THE CHI’s weaknesses is the slight unevenness of the performances. There is a mix of borderline melodramatic acting and really powerful, understated acting. A scene at the morgue with the dead boy from the opening’s family feels a bit forced. But Brandon’s speech in a later funeral scene is the most noteworthy performance of the episode, sticking with you long after the show is over. There is just so much heavy emotion packed into the run time that anything that doesn’t really resonate sticks out like a sore thumb.
“Hey Jason, great monologue”
Unfortunately, I do have a bit of fear for the future of this series. The show packs a lot of action in the first episode, and it might be too much to keep up with considering how fast the pace is for an hour-long drama. Will it lose momentum? Will THE CHI be as engrossing when the pace inevitably slows down? Hard to tell.
Regardless of those anticipatory jitters, THE CHI has succeeded so far. And there aren’t really any shows with a predominantly black cast being done in this style. There are some great comedies centered on the lives of black people right now, but THE CHI fills the void for people who want to see these stories told through a more primetime lens. It’s very dramatic, but never contrived, and that delicate balance is worth celebrating.
THE CHI airs on Showtime on Sundays at 10pm