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The Heartache and Hope of the City in 'The Chi'
January 7, 2018  | By David Hinckley

Showtime’s hard-edged new drama The Chi, in which tragedy brings an unrelated group of South Side Chicago residents together and not always in a good way, achieves its clear goal of defying easy categorization.

The Chi, which debuts Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime, has some of the urban menace of The Wire. It also has some of the everyday family drama of This Is Us.

The writers combine those diverse concepts well, though some of the show’s half-dozen plotlines feel more compelling than others.

One of the first characters we meet, 16-year-old Coogie (Jahking Guillory, top), turns out to be a sort of general template for the others. He’s doing some things we don’t admire and he’s also quietly doing some things that suggest we could really like him if he didn’t feel compelled to maintain the image he feels he needs to survive.

He’s riding his bike home one night when he finds a body under a streetlight. He’s been around. He knows what to do. He approaches the body, feels it to see if the guy is really dead, then carefully removes and pockets his gold chain.

It’s a small sin that the police don’t even notice when they pick him up and try to figure out whether he was the perp. But word gets to the dead man’s father, Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, above), that Coogie was seen standing over the body.

Ronnie used to live with the dead man’s mother, and he’d like to get her back. She tells him that if he really cared, he’d go find some justice. He’s not that kind of guy, even though he talks a tough game, but dominoes may already be in motion.

Meanwhile, Coogie’s older half-brother Brandon (Jason Mitchell, left) wants Coogie to move in for a while with Brandon and his wife Jerrika (Tiffany Boone, left).

Brandon is the guy who’s playing by the rules. He’s got a job in a restaurant kitchen and showing skills. He’s now lobbying to go “on the line” so he can get the experience he and Jerrika need to open their own restaurant.

He’s kept his eye on the prize. That focus will face some serious testing.

We also meet a variety of other neighborhood characters in the first episode. They’re all working class, including the ones who aren’t working, and presumably some of them will have roles in the upcoming drama.

The outlier, in some ways, is Detective Cruz (Armando Riesco), who investigates the murder and works hard to develop connections to a community that regards law enforcement as the enemy.

Like his constituents, he doesn’t seem to be perfect. He also doesn’t seem to get a lot of respect in the Chicago PD, perhaps because Latinos are still outsiders.

But from what we can see, we respect what he’s trying to do, and he seems to have an instinctive fairness.

Like The Wire and other urban dramas in recent years, The Chi tries to show the troubling and debilitating side of contemporary urban life while emphatically rejecting the image of all urban residents as hustlers, teenage mothers or drug dealers.

For TV purposes, logically enough, the show telescopes and streamlines its drama in the setup episode. Where it goes over the coming weeks will determine whether it paints a fresh picture of urban America’s uphill struggle to claim its piece of the American dream.

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