Absorbing and organic from practically the get-go, “The Chi” will inevitably draw comparisons to “The Wire,” the definitive drama about the perils of inner-city life. Yet this richly detailed look at intersecting paths, cutting across generations, quickly carves its own niche, one where tragedy begets tragedy, and vengeance comes with consequences.
Created by Lena Waithe, who broke ground as the first African-American woman to win a comedy writing Emmy for “Master of None,” this Showtime drama initially feels like a rejoinder to politicians (including President Trump) who have turned Chicago, and the violence there, into a talking point. The series consciously seeks to put faces on statistics, in a humanizing and at times heartbreaking way.
Despite a concept that defies simple description, this South Side story draws viewers in, while making Chicago a central character to what transpires. The plot is set in motion by the murder of a teenager – an old saw if there ever was one – another youth who stumbles upon the body, and faulty assumptions that wind up multiplying the pain.
Violence, and the ready availability of guns, are a part of life in this community. There’s also considerable skepticism about the police, although one officer (Armando Riesco) takes it upon himself to try to be a positive force.
Those who pass through the story are often put in positions that they didn’t seek, or at least didn’t anticipate. And while there are clearly bad guys lurking around the perimeters, what makes “The Chi” so devastating is the way it keeps coming back to the idea of decent or well-intentioned people doing foolish, questionable and occasionally terrible things.
Beautifully cast, key players include Jason Mitchell (“Mudbound”) as Brandon, a young restaurant worker, trying to find a better life; Alex Hibbert (“Moonlight”) as a sensitive young boy, facing adult-sized risks; and Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine ("Treme”) as Ronnie, a low-key fellow who spends his days hanging out on the corner before being pressed by the mother of a slain teenager to find out what happened.
Other strands feature children who have learned early not to trust the authorities; and Emmett (Jacob Latimore), whose mother simply rolls her eyes at his sexual conquests, especially after one of them deposits the baby he fathered at their doorstep. Sonja Sohn also provides a direct connection to “The Wire,” playing Brandon’s mom.
Working with showrunner Elwood Reid and fellow producer Common (who appears in a small role), Waithe has created a series that doesn’t provide a clear blueprint for its direction, which is part of what makes the show so bracing. The writing almost instantly gets past clichés to bring real depth to – and investment in – the characters.
Although “The Chi” has, as noted, “The Wire” – and particularly its fourth season – as a sort-of spiritual ancestor, it’s practically a textbook case of a show where execution trumps concept, which explains how the story can feel fresh while touching upon so many familiar themes, among them the vicious cycles associated with absentee fathers, indifferent institutions and access to guns.
Showtime has been all over the map in its recent programming choices, but “The Chi” again demonstrates that a good story, well told, doesn’t require a flashy premise. In the process, the show also provides a seemingly necessary reminder of the people behind the headlines when young lives get caught in the crossfire.
“The Chi” premieres Jan. 7 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.