[Spoiler alert: This review contains spoilers about The Chi‘s pilot episode.]
Coogie isn’t surprised when he sees a dead body. The teen rides his bike past a young man laying lifelessly in the middle of the sidewalk, blood drying on the asphalt. He stops to snatch the man’s gold chain and sneakers. Coogie knows the drill.
This early scene from the debut episode of Lena Waithe’s Showtime series The Chi takes place in Chicago. But Waithe, who grew up in the south-side Chatham neighborhood and won an Emmy last year for comedy writing on Master of None, doesn’t clobber viewers over the head with cliched Chicagoisms. Instead, through interconnected storylines that depict an environment in which violence is an everyday part of life, she invites viewers into the harsh reality of any American city where a teenager’s instinct upon seeing a dead body is not to flee or call 911 but to rob the corpse.
Waithe begins by introducing the ensemble’s disparate story lines. There’s the career-driven twentysomething who returns from the north side to his home turf to find everything amiss, the lazy stoner who shirks adult responsibilities, the middle-school student who auditions for the school’s musical just to impress a girl. All of them are contentedly following their routines. Brandon (Jason Mitchell), the aforementioned workaholic, is an aspiring chef angling for a promotion at a north-side seafood joint. The highlight of his day is finding a baby shark inside the digestive system of a fish.
By bringing these characters together, Waithe creates a palpable sense of urban claustrophobia in which the proximity of entwined lives becomes almost physically stifling. The body Coogie (Jahking Guillory) happens upon is the son of Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), who spends much of his time loitering on a stoop with a few buddies, catcalling women from the neighborhood. He interrupts the routine to grieve, as well as seek out the killer. Because Coogie is in possession of Ronnie’s dead son’s gold chain, the teen becomes suspect number one. Despite Coogie’s pleas of innocence, Ronnie shoots him in the chest. Kevin (Alex R. Hibbert), the middle schooler, witnesses the whole thing and shares what he saw with Brandon, Coogie’s half-brother.
Kevin speaks the last line of the episode to Brandon: “Whatchoo gonna do?” He means it as a call to action, but delivers the line with a sort of shrug, as if it’s just another day. Someone was killed because someone else was killed. What else is new?
At Coogie’s funeral Brandon says through a waterfall of tears, “This shit don’t even feel real.” His loft apartment on the north side, burgeoning restaurant career, and relative safety in his adopted neighborhood have afforded him a bubble of creature comforts, enough to ignore what’s happening on the south side. All major cities are segregated to some extent, but the north-south divide portrayed in The Chi is distinct: someone like Kevin can greet incidents of turmoil and violence in his neighborhood as an inevitability. Like us, Brandon must accept that this Chicago shit is real, and that he has to do something about it.
The Chi Sundays at 9 PM on Showtime