I’ll watch just about anything filmed in Chicago. As someone who’s lived here a long time, I like to see my city onscreen. But films and TV shows almost never get it right. CNN’s Chicagoland was a multipart campaign infomercial for Rahm; Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq burned with righteous vitriol but could’ve been set in any American city. Several dramatic series film here, including the wacky Shameless, which is an entertaining show but doesn’t really have much to say about the city. And for the last few years we’ve also hosted Dick Wolf’s ever-expanding franchise farm. It started with Chicago Fire, then came Chicago P.D., now there’s Chicago Med, with Chicago Law looming. Could Chicago Streets & San be on the horizon?
The formula for these shows is simple: pick a profession; assemble a group of attractive actors; give them a problem to solve in 45 minutes; repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. Most of Wolf’s Law & Order shows were satisfying in the same way a fast-food meal is satisfying—they hit several pleasure points at predictable intervals, then were gone. When you tuned in the following week you could reliably expect the same feelings, in roughly the same order. There’s a comfort in familiarity. Vacationing families in Chicago—one of the country’s culinary meccas—will more often be found at a Chili’s or Red Lobster than at one of Rick Bayless or Paul Kahan’s restaurants. I watched a few episodes of Chicago Fire when it launched, hoping it might scratch that itch; it didn’t. It’s a show so bland that it manages to make firefighting dull. There’s a requisite collection of pretty people, sprinkled with grizzled “character” types, but I can’t recall a single story line or character trait from the few episodes I suffered through.
When Chicago P.D. launched a couple years ago I hoped it might fill the void left by the recently canceled Chicago Code. I didn’t expect it to be any good, but perhaps it would be entertaining to pick apart. Code was comically inept but great grist for the mill. A bunch of locals would live tweet every episode. There were even a few viewing parties at the dearly departed Beachwood Inn. The show got the city and its police completely wrong, but did it in such an over-the-top way that it became our own little Rocky Horror Picture Show. I can’t imagine any viewing parties for Chicago P.D. It’s a grim, humorless undertaking.
One of the virtues of Law & Order and its spin-offs is that backstory is mostly dispensed with in order not to distract from the weekly case being solved. There’s no such discipline on P.D. or any of its Chicago siblings. We’re let in on our heroes’ affairs, family lives, and more. Somehow, though, with every revelation we only want to know these people less. There is a rich tradition of cop shows to draw on; Kojak, Hill Street Blues, N.Y.P.D Blue, The Shield, Southland, and The Wire each added to the lexicon of the genre. P.D. doesn’t have a single character who isn’t a halfhearted pastiche of someone we’ve seen before. Hank Voight (Jason Beghe), for instance, is a watered-down version of the scary, corrupt police captain played to perfection by Michael Chiklis on The Shield. Unlike Vic Mackey, though, Voight is a cipher. We occasionally get hints of his dark past, but they have little weight because week to week there are so few consequences of his baggage for the cases his squad is solving. It’s as if the show can’t decide whether to be a procedural or a story with a long arc. One week a detective is in a drug/debauchery spiral, the next she’s soberly battling the bad guys again as if nothing happened. The one constant on the show is its violence.
Suspects are beaten mercilessly, and these beatings are never questioned. Viewed over the past few months, with the Laquan McDonald video and other revelations of misconduct as background, the interrogation scenes on the show play especially tone-deaf—it’s as if the show’s makers had hired Jon Burge himself to consult on getting the details right. In P.D.‘s moral universe, police are heroes and everyone else is either a victim or a perpetrator. On a recent episode a psychologist refers to the squad’s headquarters as “one of those famous black sites.” The detective tells him not to believe everything he reads. So are we being told to ignore the news stories about Homan Square? Is that the message?
I wonder who the audience for this thing is. Somebody’s obviously watching, since it’s on its third season. Do cops like it? (I remember hearing a long time ago that cops loved Barney Miller. That show portrayed both the tedium and camaraderie of the job.) Of course you don’t have to love cops to love cop shows—the profession lends itself perfectly to drama because conflict is its essence. In this case, though, while many capable actors show up on Chicago P.D., from Steppenwolf ensemble member Amy Morton to movie veterans like Elias Koteas, none survive the wooden dialogue and canned stories they’re made to dramatize. There’s a joylessness to it all—everyone’s slogging through with little enthusiasm or conviction. Every once in a while there’s a glimpse of a familiar corner of the city in the background that makes me perk up. But even this momentary thrill evaporates when a character inevitably mangles Chicago’s geography. I understand that fiction has no duty to be true to its setting, but have never understood why using the layout and landmarks of a place correctly is such a hardship for TV shows. Getting things wrong goes beyond misnaming streets. When one of the cops—a guy in his 20s—talks about running with a gang in Bucktown in his youth, he’s not just rearranging a couple numbers; he’s ignoring the reality and history of a whole neighborhood.
Though a major American city, Chicago is barely known to the wider culture except as painted in the broadest strokes. We know every last garbage can in New York City and every last billboard in LA, but to most people our city’s still Al Capone, deep-dish pizza, segregation, and not much else. I’m glad that Dick Wolf has given work to local actors, directors, and other film professionals, but he’s done little to tell about this city. The national news about our town right now is brutal, and deservedly so. But there are many more stories to be told here. Some of those may even interest people living beyond the city limits. In all likelihood you’ll never see any of them on Chicago P.D., but I’ll keep tuning in to anything with “Chicago” in its title, hoping for a few glimpses of the city I know.