"The Chicago Code" and why I don't watch network dramas

Premiering last night on Fox, The Chicago Code is a new drama from Shawn Ryan. It’s a police procedural with a focus on corrupt politicians, and while I don’t bother with most procedurals, I gave it a shot for a few reasons. First, there’s Ryan’s track record; after following a classic (The Shield) with dreck (The Unit), he bounced back and was show runner on last year’s saddest cancellation, Terriers. The show also stars Jason Clarke, who was phenomenal on another amazing but underappreciated series, Brotherhood. Then there’s the premise – the intersection of crime and politics – which seems like a simplified version of Brotherhood or the mid-series subplots from The Wire.

Right off the bat, The Chicago Code is uptempo, and it doesn’t really let up over the pilot. There are quick cuts and quicker dialogue, even if some is a little silly; no one has ever uttered the words “I’m not a beat copper anymore” in real life. The narration is a bit heavy-handed, but it’s useful in filling the audience in on backstory and motivation for multiple characters.

Jason Clarke plays Jarek Wysocki, another Cowboy Cop who burns through partners faster than cigarettes. His ex-partner is the fast-rising police superintendent, Teresa Colvin (played by Jennifer Beals). And what would a police procedural be without a buddy cop element? Enter Caleb Evers (Matt Lauria) – young, brash, and slightly more by the book than his new partner.

Alderman Ronin Gibbons (Delroy Lindo, who makes the character half Clay Davis and half Rodney Little) is established as the Big Bad almost immediately. After meeting in his office, a whistle-blower who works at a company he secretly controls is dead within 5 minutes. Not exactly subtle.

Apart from the easy characterization of all involved, the pilot suffers from an overall lack of oxygen. The breakneck pace makes it nearly impossible to digest and enjoy the dialogue or the plotting. Even worse, the incessant need to Raise The Stakes was off-putting. The protagonists had to investigate a murder, plant the seeds of a larger corruption case, and prevent a gang war, all in 45 screen minutes!

Judging a show by its pilot is the ultimate example of judging a book by its cover. Pilots have to captivate fickle audiences and establish a new world in a short amount of time. Plenty of shows improved greatly from weak pilots (American Dad comes to mind) while others never met the lofty standard set in the pilot (Studio 60 being a major offender). But the problems in The Chicago Code‘s pilot are more endemic in network drama, and I fear it won’t be able to make it past the simplistic standards of its peers.

While The Wire may have perfected the medium, it’s unfair to compare it to standard issue procedurals. But that doesn’t mean networks can’t learn a thing or two. The networks still refuse to infuse their dramas with the nuance that has helped other procedurals find critical (if not commercial) success, shows like Veronica Mars and Terriers. But given the latter’s untimely demise, I’m not surprised to see Shawn Ryan opt for the easier path this time around.

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