CREDIT DUE Even given Ryan’s concessions to the non-cable audience (and sponsors), The Chicago Code has a chance to rise above standard network-police-drama fare.
No list of the best television dramas of the past 10 years would be complete without a mention of The Shield. True, it never got quite the same over-the-top universal adulation during its run that the great HBO triumvirate of The Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood received, but series creator Shawn Ryan helped define the terms for what cable drama has become — specifically, a degree of unflinching darkness and a charismatic antihero. And it's that pedigree that makes Ryan's new Fox show worth a longer look than your average network police potboiler.
The Chicago Code focuses (thus far, anyway) on two of the city's finest: Teresa Colvin (Jennifer Beals, doing a cartoonish Chicago accent), Chi-Town's first female superintendent, and her former partner, the no-nonsense Jarek Wysocki (Jason Clarke, his accent somehow even worse than Beals's), who is something of a living legend among his fellow officers. He's also notoriously difficult to work with, going through new partners like Kleenex. The plot kicks into action when Alderman Gibbons (Delroy Lindo) denies Colvin her request for the creation of a special citywide corruption task force. That prompts Colvin (unofficially, of course) to investigate him. Then there's a murder in Grant Park that could conceivably benefit Gibbons, and that gives her the chance to draw Wysocki in, along with his latest new partner, Caleb (Matt Lauria, fresh off playing a high-school student on Friday Night Lights). We also meet Wysocki's uniform-cop niece, Vonda (Devin Kelley), and her partner, Isaac (Todd Williams), who's arrogant and a bit reckless.
As the plot and character descriptions suggest, TheChicago Code isn't exactly breaking new ground. We've all seen crusading cops take on the political machine, mismatched partners (did I mention that Caleb's a Cubs fan but Wysocki is a White Sox fan?!), and hot-shots who play by their own rules. And though the cast is solid, the members aren't collectively strong enough to elevate the material. Neither is there an obvious breakout star or character to this point, though Lindo does make a good villain. Even the writing feels as it weren't quite there yet — each character gets a voiceover soliloquy at some point during the first three episodes, but I'm not sure these reveal anything you couldn't have figured out on your own.
But if Ryan is doing some extra handholding as a concession to a more mainstream audience (not to mention sponsors) accustomed to shut-your-brain-off fare like CSI and Law & Order, TheChicago Code may yet distinguish itself from other network police dramas. The Shield had the ability to morph into one of three shows, often within the same episode: (a) an examination of the thin lines separating cops, criminals, and politicians; (b) an episodic, nutjob-of-the-week procedural focused on two skilled detectives with differing methods; and (c) a look at the culture of the force itself. By establishing a potentially season-long overarching storyline — i.e., Colvin-Gibbons — with high-stakes outcomes for our main characters, Ryan has shown that TheChicago Code won't be a formulaic investigative show where the reset button is hit after each hour, with the door left open for the occasional isolated change-of-pace episode. And there's another intriguing story mine in the form of Liam (Billy Lush), a deep-cover detective making inroads with the local organized-crime outfit. As The Shield proved, Ryan has it in him pull these disparate threads together into an intriguing whole. Let's hope he delivers.