It’s a tiresome comparison by now, but when it comes to cop shows, “The Wire” is still the yardstick by which every other cop show is compared. That comparison is often a way to simply dismiss a new cop show because it can’t, it won’t, it will never compare. Nevertheless, Shawn Ryan’s “Chicago Code,” which premiered last night on Fox, isn’t “The Wire,” but it’s one of the few shows, like Ryan’s “The Shield,” that deserves to be mentioned in the same company. It’s not on HBO, it doesn’t have the writing talent of David Simon behind it, nor does it have the character actors, and it’s also severely limited by the confines of network television, but based on the pilot episode alone, “Chicago Code” is the first cop show in a while to appropriately raise the spectre of “The Wire.”
“Chicago Code” wants to transcend the cop show for network television the same way “The Shield” did for basic cable; it wants to develop season-long arcs, meaty villains for which you can root, morally ambiguous heroes, shades of gray with regional accents, and fully fleshed out, three-dimensional characters that will probably die and break your heart. It should get credit alone for not tackling a single crime in each episode, but digging deeper and addressing institutional corruption, offering the promise of something better than another “CSI,” “NCIS,” or “Law & Order” spin-off.
“Chicago Code” stars Jennifer Beals as Teresa Colvin, the new superintendent of the
Chicago Police Department, assigned to the position by an Alderman Gibbons (Delroy Lindo) who expects her to be a Yes Woman. Colvin abruptly turns on Gibbons when she requests funding for a corruption task force, a request that is denied because Gibbons knows where that investigation would lead.
Colvin instead sets up an unofficial task force, and her first choice is her ex-partner Detective Jarek Wysocki (Jason Clarke), a tough but compassionate cop, the picture of Irish Integrity, a man who has never met a partner with which he wanted to work. (Wysocki also hates swearing, a cheat that Ryan developed to get around not using profanity in a network show). Wysocki is saddled with a young cop (“Friday Night Light’s” Matt Lauria) who displays strong police instincts, and the two of them — under the guide of Superintendent Colvin — begin an investigation that would lead to Alderman Gibbons, if only they could fill in the evidentiary gaps.
The series looks to piece together that puzzle, and merge that investigation with departmental politics, the police union, multiple homicides, bribery, gang warfare, and a few personal relationship subplots. The pilot episode sets up those story possibilities, sets it against the backdrop of what we already know about corruption in Chicago, and begins a unwind of the narrative, a slow burn with a conclusion potentially far more satisfying than simply identifying another killer.
The writing in “Chicago Code” is more than capable (although, it still reeks of the occasional cop cliché, which is nothing out of the ordinary for Shawn Ryan), and while a couple of the situations in the pilot feel contrived for maximum quirkiness, they are well intentioned. Beals, who has 30 years of “Flashdance” and “The L Word” with which to contend, doesn’t quite look the part, but despite a wildly uneven Chicago accent, she grows into it. Jason Clarke (“Brotherhood”) is the standout here, the McNulty pitted against his Stringer Bell, and Lindo is already killing it in that regard, creating in his few scenes the kind of seedy, corrupt asshole it’ll be a joy to root for and against.
Unfortunately, even watered down for network TV, Shawn Ryan’s police drama is probably too complex for network viewers, but floating the possibility of cancellation becomes all too self-fulfilling. So, get in on it now, and save yourself six weeks from now from bellyaching over the inevitability of its cancellation. It doesn’t have to be inevitable, if only the latecomers would arrive a little sooner.