Monday, February 21, 2011

'The Chicago Code': The Myths of Depth and Caring

THERESA COLVIN: (voiceover) As a detective, I pulled 12-year-old Antonio Betts off the street and made sure he got an education. As a captain, with his mother's blessing, I handed 19-year-old Antonio Betts an application to be a Chicago police officer. When I became Superintendent of Police, I asked 24-year-old Antonio Betts to be my driver and bodyguard. Tonight, 25-year-old Antonio Betts put himself in front of two bullets to save my life. I didn't just lose an officer and a driver tonight. I lost a confidante and a friend. (Scene changes to hospital.)
MRS. BETTS: Who the hell did this to my baby?
COLVIN: I don't know, but I promise you I will not let a single officer rest until I find out.
The Chicago Code, "Hog Butcher"
From Shawn Ryan, the creator of the gritty show The Shield comes The Chicago Code, a show that has grit, plus rough edges. It isn't glossy. It's gritty. This is a gritty show. It's also very earnest, sincere and full of being serious about the things it is genuinely sincere and earnest about. It delivers grit-meaning with one-dimensional intensity. It's like playing the first level of Super Mario Brothers, only you play it really fast, and you take speed, and you listen to a metal cover of the theme music on an iPod really loud, so you can experience exactly what you expected, but with orders of magnitude more meaningful intensegrittity. It is also a bad show.

Eighteen years ago, NBC aired the first episode of Homicide: Life on the Street and, by rights, should have created a sea change in the structure of police procedurals. It explored a conceit fundamental to police station houses, one amply demonstrated in David Simon's non-fiction book, on which it was based, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. The conceit was this: caring is mostly a myth. Yes, granted, there are cops out there who want to bust bad guys because they want to make a difference, clean up the city, bring solace to victims, etc. But by and large, cops are like people in any other job.

Many cops find themselves where they are for reasons far from the philosophical or civically upstanding. Maybe this was the only job in their town that had healthcare benefits and a pension, or the best-paying one for someone with their education. For whatever reason, they're there. In many cases, the factors motivating their dedication to the job have nothing to do with the city they're meant to protect and serve. In fact, as Simon's book and the show demonstrated, most of the good cops wanted to catch bad guys out of sheer bloodyminded resentment that some dumbfuck thought he could kill someone in their town and get away with it. Screw speaking for the dead: I'm smarter than this asshole, and now I'm going to prove it.

The Chicago Code possesses no such cynicism or realism. It boils over with caring, a constant churning sincerity that refuses to stop declaring itself. While it is nowhere close to the unintentionally hilarious earnestness of Law & Order: SVU, it easily dwarfs that show in its commitment to constant self-affirmation and re-affirmation. How much so? Consider the opening scene transcribed above: it's from the second episode. Between my not watching television the Monday before and the constant over-dependence on expository voiceover and dialogue, I watched the entire second episode completely convinced that it was a pilot.

In disbelief that a second episode could possibly need to scream its mission statement at an audience so thoroughly, I went back and watched the pilot. Both episodes were sort of amusing, but both were equally as bad. In what seems like the accidental hallmark of a Shawn Ryan show, both episodes were little more than shallow entertainments peeking out from behind the bizarrely compulsive and frenetic personality of self-justification trying to sell them.

Task Force of Caring
The Chicago Code follows newly minted Chicago Police Superintendent Theresa Colvin (Jennifer Beals, best known for Flashdance) as she tries to establish a special bureau for fighting Chicago's Irish mob, gang and machine-politics corruption. Although thwarted in her attempts officially by her former political sponsor and corrupt alderman Ronin — no, really — Gibbons (Delroy Lindo), she sets up an unofficial force led by her ex-partner Jarek Wysocki (Jason Clarke) to take down Gibbons and everything else.

Colvin, Wysocki and Gibbons find themselves in these positions because — oh, hell, let them tell you:
COLVIN: Driving through the city it's easy to see the greatness of Chicago. But there's a history behind it we've never been able to escape. Growing up, I witnessed firsthand the effects of the Chicago way. My dad had to pay off city inspectors for building code exemptions. He paid off precinct captains to get the trash collected on time. He paid off thugs for protection. Until finally there wasn't any money left. It broke my father's heart and cost my parents their marriage. It's taken more than thirty years since then, but I am finally in a position of power to do something about it.
Much like the opening monologue for the second episode, this monologue opens the pilot, making sure even Americans who can't focus on the screen because they're staring at their fingers and trying to get them as close to their nostrils as possible (without touching!!!) to smell them can still follow along.

If the importance of that message has dissipated after a mere three minutes, along comes:
WYSOCKI: You know when my father pinned the Chicago PD badge on me, he told me to shake hands with the good citizens of this city with a velvet glove... but keep a razor blade hidden between your fingers for the ones who forgot their manners. He also told me, the moment I ever felt safe, to remember I was just a dumb polack, as capable as the next idiot of getting my head shot off.
Chicago is now a town fully invested with cops possessed of hearts toughened by grit. But that grit also has a heart, as we learn but five more minutes after that:
WYSOCKI: Theresa Colvin graduated first in her class and made detective faster than anyone in memory. From there she moved into undercover work, which led to the biggest cocaine bust in Chicago's history. So they made her lieutenant. Then captain. Then chief of detectives. And when the mayor's first choice for superintendent suffered a massive heart attack, she went in front of the police commission as a real longshot, as a token candidate. But she won 'em over with her impassioned and bold ideas. When Theresa Colvin was my partner, she said in ten years she'd be the city's first female superintendent. It only took her eight.
It's this second speech of Wysocki's that actually elicited the first real laugh.

Look, voiceover is almost always bad. Any competent writer should be able to convey necessary expository information like this, for virtually any story, through less obtrusive dialogue, written cues or non-verbal interactions. A look into the lives of these cops should allow them to naturally demonstrate their power relationships, emotional bonds and aims. Shared history can come out through the way someone orders someone else a hot dog, and personal ambition can be shown pretty easily without telling. Good actors (and this show has them) can use nuances and spaces between words to reinforce and expand on these nuggets of information for the audience.

The Chicago Code not only tells you everything, it does so in language so emphatic that you can hear the jammed caps lock button on Shawn Ryan's laptop. Compounding the problem, it has to tell you multiple times, from different people. Colvin couldn't just tell her story; Wysocki elaborates on it and reemphasizes it. And worst of all, he does so clumsily, with a voice very redolent of "writers writing." There's no other explanation for the complete tonal thud left by a pair of sentences like, "She went in front of the police commission as a real longshot, as a token candidate. But she won 'em over with her impassioned and bold ideas." Seriously, it's like giving a street dealer working a drug corner a copy of his friend's curriculum vitae that you've padded out to an extra 500 words, then asking him to memorize it and relate it, aloud, to passersby:
When D-Lo took over this corner, he quickly employed new strategies to maximize slangin' this rock, and in five months, he had more hoppers under him than anybody. He quickly won over the 'hood because of his commitment to dealin' real product, on real terms, with real fairness, otherwise he'd kick yo' ass—for real.
Interior monologue isn't always bad. Think of Hamlet and the most famous soliloquy in English. The benefit of speaking directly to the audience is that you can cut the shit: if you want or need to tell people a lot of complex ideas really quickly, you can skip the time-consuming artifice of dialogue. The trouble is, none of The Chicago Code's information is the slightest bit complex, and it's repetetive. With Hamlet, he confronts himself at the same time as he confronts the audience and elliptically declares his own irresolution. What he has to offer is uncertainty, a revelation of character that doesn't simplify his presentation but only further muddies its meaning to himself and the listener. With Colvin's monologue, the camera might as well pan to a red door as she says, "My new office was behind a red door." With Wysocki's monologue, he could say, "When I became a cop, my dad put his hand on me, coply, and said, 'You're a cop now.' And I said, 'That's what it says on my badge.' Here, look at it." Then he could flash the badge at the mirror, because he is talking to himself.

Probably the biggest missed opportunity comes in the form of Alderman Ronin "Bushido" Gibbons' voiceover. Here is a man plainly crooked, who has maintained power in a democratic system through patronage, spoils and horse trading, who has to employ the rhetoric of public decency to further private venality. Yet he's not even honest with himself, alone, in his head. We are peering into his soul and hearing its lonely private voice, and what it offers is a vague oral gloss of a Polaroid photo of the man. Here's the biggest and best chance, right out of the gate, to create a deeper character with conflicting impulses. Instead:
GIBBONS: You wonder why the same guys get elected over and over agin? It's because someone got the Fitzgerald family the zoning variance they needed. It's because someone got the Williams boy's drag-racing citation knocked down to a simple speeding ticket. Someone did that for them. And that someone was me. They say Chicago is the city that works. What some people never understand is, it works in a lotta different ways.
Once you accept the failure of the writing on the basis of its total reliance on voiceover to lecture the audience on the self-evident, you can look to this passage as an example of how thoroughly bad the execution of that lecturing is, in terms of actually using words. This is the richest it gets, this half-baked noir pastiche that wants to sound like a slickly disaffected devil's bargain pitched by an Iago but instead comes off like an ill-remembered training mnemonic from a newly hired car salesman. The language of The Chicago Code struggles even to achieve the distinction of cliché. It strains its tiny arms for the accessible rung of mediocrity and flails its fingers uselessly in the air. The speech's conclusion would have improved by being even more stylized, more boilerplate noir, playing exactly to one's lowest expectations and no more. Seriously, take your pick:
Chicago is the city that works. What some people never understand is:
a. how to work it.
b. how to make it work for them.
c. it's better to be its boss.
d. why they are watching this show.
Incredibly, the second episode shows no signs of reining in this kind of forced exposition. In the pilot, we meet a black patrol cop who says his neighborhood was ruined by gang violence. In the second episode, he says, "When people ask me how I escaped gang life, I always tell them the same thing. I didn't. I joined the toughest gang in town." Really? I mean, he of all people should have noticed how the police have been steadily losing the drug war.

Finally, Wysocki goes to church to pray for a dead cop. A priest he knows tries to get him back in the fold, and he replies that he can't, because he's a lapsed Catholic, and he's divorced, and he's still sleeping with his ex-wife, and he's cheating with her on his 27-year-old fiancée, and his 16-year-old son doesn't understand him, and he'd murder the cop killer. He even specifies the goddamned ages when telling the priest these details — all of which we've just seen over two episodes — before explaining to the one person who'd already know that he's a lapsed Catholic that he is, in fact, a lapsed Catholic. Now go back to the top of the page and reread all this again, because evidently Shawn Ryan thinks you're that fucking stupid.

It's easy to poke holes like this without offering an alternative, but those alternatives seem almost like piling on. Take the USA original series White Collar, which is a semi-comic romp of a show that melds the "G-Man and a criminal" partnership of Catch Me If You Can with the lighthearted rat-pack caper vibe of Ocean's Eleven. There is no moral weight to the show; there is no message. It's pure popcorn entertainment that attempts nothing like the hard-bitten serious-issue reality of The Chicago Code. Yet its pilot episode presents a superior piece of writing in every way. Not only does it use two fun caper plots to introduce all the necessary characters and the interpersonal tensions that will define the series, its expository opening is virtually unnoticeable. Like a classical guitarist whose hands you can't hear on the strings or a puppeteer so talented that you completely ignore the strings on his marionettes, the writing elements tying it to an establishing premise are nearly invisible.

What makes White Collar's virtually hands-off writing laudable is that, aside from one or two spoken lines and a title card that gives criminal-protagonist Neal Caffrey's name, conviction and suspected criminal activity, there isn't any dialogue for the first three minutes and fifteen seconds. In fact, it takes nearly five and a half minutes for the first line of expository dialogue, where FBI Agent Peter Burke asks why the Marshal Service wants his help in catching Caffrey, and Burke's assistant says, "Probably because you were the only one who ever caught him." That's it, over a period of nearly six minutes — about 1/7th of a current hourlong show, sans commercials. In that time, we see that Neal can disguise himself, seamlessly insinuate himself in hostile environments, grift rich people and track down people he needs to find. At the same time, we've learned that Burke is a smart criminal investigator with a little streetwise attitude to him, able to figure out a telephone keypad practical-joke puzzle in his head while his Harvard-trained assistants stand helplessly and get punked by a criminal. Burke needs Caffrey; Caffrey is about to be caught by Burke. The series establishes its premise in five minutes and fewer than 100 spoken words.

The difference in the social import of the two series and in their executions is like picking up a crime novel written by John Updike and then a meditative social drama about the anomie of 21st century middle class life written by Jim Butcher. Nobody really expects the crime novel or the caper show to be good, but a superior talent is in charge of them anyway. As mostly vapid entertainment, it can be clunky and over-written junk with its creator's fingerprints all over it, but it's not. The problem is, The Chicago Code wants you to believe that it's a fictional document about crime and America that's freighted with meaning, only it's working on a sweaty, obvious and juvenile social level equivalent to something about broadswords and orcs.

Perps That Walk Free, Man
I made a token attempt at live-blogging these two episodes, but the project fell apart when I kept stopping the DVR to write down increasingly preposterous voiceover. After a while, certain trends manifested themselves, resulting in the observations made above and below. Still, a few things jumped out that didn't have anywhere else to go:

Colvin's opening monologue's Chicaaaiiiiiihhhgo accent is fascinating, because for the rest of the pilot and through episode two, you can pretty much flip a coin before any scene to determine whether she will try extra hard to accent everything, or just skip the idea entirely. (You get the sense that it will disappear mid-season, like Gabrielle Anwar's Irish accent in Burn Notice or how Han Solo's inability to pronounce a G at the end of a gerund didn't last past Star Wars.) It's weird because Mrs. Flashdance is from Chicago, and when she decides to use it, her midwestern flatness is fairly convincing. However, the zero-sum switch between accent and no-accent makes it really obvious when she's decided, "NOW I SHALL HAVE AN ACCENT." It's like when someone you know who slouches all the time walks up on a dais to receive an honor. He looks at the huge crowd in front of him, and you can see the moment his brain says, "NOW I SHALL STAND UP STRAIGHT." He can hold it for two or even three minutes. But as soon as his eyes go glassy and he gets lost in thought, there he is again: a person who slouches.

It's time for the high-concept explanation for PG language! After a scene earlier in the episode in which Wysocki berates a soon-to-be-dismissed partner for his swearing in front of kids, he tells rookie Caleb Evers, "I don't appreciate profanity." See, this show is gritty and real. But it's on a network, so all these real guys can't say "fuck." Those of you who were forced to see the movie Armageddon will remember how little Liv Tyler grew up on the oil derrick and how there were signs all over the derrick saying, "No swearing!" to explain why a bunch of hard-drinking, immoral, dropout leathernecks never talked like human beings in a movie rated for children. Wysocki's brother was killed in the line of duty, and he's sick of all this corruption, and he's the sort of guy who will disobey orders and cheat on his fiancée to fuck his ex-wife on his teenaged son's bed, but if one of his own goes down to a perp's bullet — sure, it'll be a frickin' shame — but he still won't care a rattin' darn if you want to use the S-word, rook, you still can't do it in his patrol car!

Swearing is bad, but calling people "jackholes" and "jagholes" is okay. Also, really natural-sounding.

Actual dialogue:
COLVIN: Someone in one of these skyscrapers thinks they're getting away with it.
WYSOCKI: That's 'cause they're always getting away with it. (pause) I'm just a lowly homicide detective. I can't fix the city's plumbing, and neither can you.
COLVIN: Just one toilet at a time, detective.
I'm just a caveman. The Richard J. Daley political machine frightens and confuses me. Poop. I work in the hole for poop.

Literally 36 minutes into a 42-minute episode, after he and Colvin have been planning how to take down the powerful alderman who they fear may be one step ahead of them, Wysocki confesses, "What I didn't tell you is 20 years ago, my old man went after Gibbons." Nothing comes of this for the rest of the episode or any part of episode #2. It's like some guy surviving D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge and then confessing, in a foxhole, "What I didn't tell you is... Hitler personally murdered my dad." And when his buddy hears this, he asks about it, and the guy tells him, "Let's talk about it after we've won the war, whenever that is."

You know what would be cool? Not casting Delroy Lindo as an evil black dude again. Just an idea.

The profile of the actor who plays Wysocki is already very aquiline, but his expression of theatrically pursed lips and his downcast glowering head accentuate this so much that even seeing him for the first time is like instantly looking at the one-column cartoon of him that would run in a New Yorker review of the show.

An Intensity of Grit
When new episodes of The Shield still aired, you could almost guarantee a minor explosion from any one of its fans by describing it as "The Wire for idiots." In their response there was at least a glimmer of recognition: message boards dedicated to television suffered no shortage of people who proclaimed how dull or impenetrable The Wire was or how much it sucked that there wasn't nearly as much shooting and killing as The Shield. Fans who wanted the show taken seriously wanted no part of what seemed like a significantly more voluble and representative part of the fanbase that cleaved to it because of its simplicity, and because the amoral protagonist Vic Mackey "fucking owns," and in spite of the few morally nebulous elements it possessed.

Surely many of these people were idiots and unrepresentative of the intelligence of some the fanbase. But shows almost always get the fans they deserve. People didn't watch ALF to see the dad, Willy, just try to make it through the day, and people didn't watch Small Wonder to see how the family would grow to love a robot. They watched them because there was an alien who ate cats or because there was a robot. And while there were and are thousands of bozos who love The Wire because "Omar rules—Omar comin', y'all!" the heart of the fanbase celebrates it for its Dickensian scope, its testament to the corrosion of the American dream, its humanizing of the underclass, its indictment of the drug war. Meanwhile, you could refresh chat threads on TV message boards and watch the post-rate explode as Shield fans squeed and ooohed like 'shipper fangirls whenever Vic Mackey used precious, precious guns or did something vicariously "badass."

The Shield's complexity was all prima facie, the sort of grit The Chicago Code trades in. Scenes were shot obviously in overexposed yellows or over-grained interiors, basic visual cues that said, "This is a severe and uncompromising reality, with dust and sunlight and things like that," and, "This is a dark reality, with shadows and damp spots." Main characters descended into the same litany of sins, albeit in different orders, and suffered the same wrenching of conscience before indulging in the same moral shortcuts, ill-gotten gains, attempted betrayals, generalized avarice. The Shield's "Strike Team" was like watching the women from Sex and the City, only armed — the same bitchy, distrustful, backstabbing and needy cyclical moral nullity played out over more seasons than the material warranted.

Once you got past the elementary-school shocker that good guys can be the real bad guys but that we might find more social utility in good guys being bad guys (and thus bad guys become good guys), the premise exhausted itself. Like Sex and the City's conceit — "women can be happy without men!" — the weight of self-evidence crushed the series to little more than lip-service after a dozen episodes. Describing it invariably involved more intellectual heft than actually experiencing it, which left it no place to go but from the generally meaningless to the particularly meaningless. But here it foundered as well. On a character level, the show's idea of emotional complexity was, "Hey, Vic Mackey is pretty much pure narcissism, megalomania and criminality. But he's not a cartoon villain: dude loves his kids! Did I just blow your mind with two dimensions?" (Hitler was really evil, but he loved dachshunds! Wrap your brain around that!) Then the bitter pill of ambiguity was washed down by his kicking ass and taking care of himself whenever the stakes were highest, an essential action-plot sop to any ethical quandary. Whatever. Dilemmas, devices, doubt, all done in by firearms.

Although you can easily see Lindo's Gibbons character becoming a Mackey-level master Machiavel — the guy who always eludes the good guys and strings out yet another season of drama while providing the writers with a constant deus ex machina-level of "get out of plot-arc free" cards — the interesting thing is that The Chicago Code is somehow less sophisticated than The Shield. The latter at least made token attempts to provoke with its broad suggestion that self-actualized men who are capable of succeeding may be justified in feeling unencumbered by law or morality. Yet the former runs safely back to decades of the most intellectually and emotionally basic staple of cop drama. There are bad people, and there are good people. The good people try to stop the bad people, and the good people are called cops. These cops do things that are important. They clean up the city. You can almost feel them caring at you.

In this A-Is-A existence, in the absence of any real intellectual or moral stakes, the show has to resort to creating a myth of depth by switching between static scenes of black and white as frenetically as possible, like the kid in class who hasn't done any of the reading and, after being called upon, makes a show of flipping through his notes but does it so fast that he couldn't possibly have recognized a word in them. The show changes locations or characters or both every two minutes, as if terrified that everyone will be bored after 90 seconds, changing the channel on itself before the banality has any chance to set in. Structurally, in terms of arc, it relies on much the same thing. Like the The Shield, it suffers the disease of equating movement and multitude with meaning.

The Chicago Code mistakes having a lot of things going on for complexity — the idea that if you present four different plots with cardboard characters doing clichéd things, you have crafted an epic. It's the same mistaken logic that would enable someone to take four different story arcs from Dilbert comic strips, tell them out of sequence, then claim they'd written a novel. More strips of two-dimensional people living out one-dimensional plots doesn't make a complex and probing ensemble cast. It just means that you're printing a cartoon with more panels.

The Chicago Code airs Mondays at 9 pm. Watch something else.