I’ll start with the good news.
Showtime’s new drama “The Chi,” created and written by Lena Waithe, is a strikingly honest, intimate, and
habit-forming series about a black community on the South Side of Chicago. Basically, we track a pair of related murders of young black men and the changes those deaths wreak on those who knew them — mothers, of course, as well as grandmothers, siblings, friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, coworkers, and acquaintances. Grief, guilt, accusation, and retaliation ripple through their worlds. But then the show is so much more than just another TV crime series about black youths, drugs, and inner-city violence. It puts very human faces and personalities on the endless flow of generic headlines, and in the process their lives become harder to dismiss with a turn of the page or a click. “The Chi” makes the political personal.
Based on her supporting role on “Master of None” and her Emmy-winning script for an episode of that series, I wouldn’t have expected this kind of storytelling sophistication from Waithe. She gives us a large ensemble of Chicagoans, each well-drawn, and then slowly links them together — on occasion, a little awkwardly — across the first four episodes made available to critics. What at the start might seem like a somewhat random selection of neighborhood folks becomes increasingly intentional. The focus sharpens with each hour.
I won’t spell out the relationships among the characters — that’s part of the fun and challenge of the show. But there are a few standout characters and actors worth mentioning. Jason Mitchell, who is also in “Mudbound,” is remarkable as Brandon, the loving twentysomething brother of a murdered kid. Brandon is likable, his goal is to run a restaurant, and he has a positive relationship with his girlfriend, Jerrika (Tiffany Boone) — but his brother’s death is pushing him to take stupid risks. “The Wire” alum Sonja Sohn is quite compelling as his mother, LaVerne, who is fragile, stubborn, impulsive, and undone by grief. As Ronnie, a lost soul hoping to get back together with his ex, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine is unforgettable. He adds layers of Freudian complexity to a man who will do anything to win over a woman and restore his sense of manhood.
In a way, “The Chi” is most obviously comparable to “The Wire.” It’s about the tragic flaws in our criminal justice system, it’s about the schools the younger characters attend and the corners some of them work. The cast is large and primarily black, and, like “The Wire,” the writing encourages the viewer to pay attention; plot turns and character histories are not spelled out for us. And that comparison to David Simon’s masterpiece is half-right, as “The Chi” gives us the people behind the statistics, shows us the specifics of their sometimes-impossible situations.
But Waithe is warmer than Simon, and “The Chi” is half multigenerational family
comedy-drama, too. At times, particularly during the stories about the younger members of the cast, the show reminds me of “Shameless,” another Showtime series set in Chicago. Both feature scrappy kids and child welfare issues, and both are tonally elastic and flip effortlessly between heavy and light. The story of Kevin (Alex Hibbert from “Moonlight”), an innocent kid learning to flirt with girls at school, could belong to Carl on “Shameless”; he witnesses a crime and suddenly finds himself over his head with a dangerous figure.
Emmett (Jacob Latimore), too, brings touches of “Shameless” to “The Chi” as a teen who loves sneakers and women, and who is suddenly presented with an infant son by an ex-girlfriend. Of course, “Shameless” is primarily white, while “The Chi” joins a small but growing group of primarily black series including “Insecure,” “Empire,” “Queen Sugar,” and “Atlanta.”
Oh right — the bad news: Now, you may have one more item to add to your already too-long queue of good TV series to watch.
Starring: Jason Mitchell, Alex Hibbert, Sonja Sohn, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Birgundi Baker, Jacob Latimore, Yolonda Ross, Tiffany Boone, Armando Riesco, Steven Williams, Michael Epps, Shamon Brown. On: Showtime, Sunday at 10 p.m. First episode available now.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.