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TV review: Fox's 'The Chicago Code,' an exhilarating cops-and-corruption workout

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2011; 7:05 PM

Chicago! What's not to love? Great food, impressive architecture, scads of culture, sports and those underground comedy troupes where you might see the next Amy Poehler. Granted, the winters kind of stink, but man!

Then there's the Chicago of fictional television dramas, as seen over the years: That place is a freakin' nightmare! Dirty, noisy, dangerous - stay away! Corrupt to the bone, from city hall to mafia dens. Murderous, too. Helicopters crashing in front of emergency rooms; people pushing one another off El platforms (splat!); miles and miles of housing projects filled with the criminal element. My God, the sirens alone. You'd think Mrs. O'Leary's barn were on fire 12 times a day.

"The Chicago Code," Fox's immediately engaging new Monday-night drama from "The Shield" creator Shawn Ryan, prefers Chicago both ways. Fleeting moments of true Windy City pride (Chicago hot dogs, Chicago pizza, Chicago accents and newly assigned partners bonding spitefully over the Sox-Cubs divide) are woven into a story that relies on a significant part of Chicago turning up dead.

Dead informants, dead officers, dead thugs, dead joggers. "The Chicago Code's" first order of business is to use up the national supply of yellow tape.

The show is point-blank, but somewhat brilliantly so. A lot of cops shows come and go (and in some cases, such as the spotty "Southland," slide over to cable), and each struggles to establish character depth while maintaining a bullet's momentum. On network prime time, cop shows are also unfairly saddled with cross-purposed burdens: They need the instant ratings and procedural facility of a hit like "NCIS," but they also must meet the impossible critical demands of a show like "The Wire." (Fast! But slow.)

This is something "The Chicago Code" gets almost exactly right - a mix of light and serious - thanks mainly to a knack for fizzy dialogue and the well-regarded success of Ryan's previous, modest hit, "The Shield," which was set in Los Angeles and revolved around a strong character (Michael Chiklis's Vic Mackey) whom smart viewers just couldn't ignore.

Some of that "Shield" feeling is immediately recognizable in two of this show's standout characters: Jennifer Beals as Teresa Colvin, newly appointed as the city's top cop, and Jason Clarke, as a hardened Polish-Catholic detective named Jarek Wysocki.

"The Chicago Code" proves that voice-over and quick-edit flashbacks - generally hackneyed devices - can still provide narrative fuel, as Teresa quickly describes the heartbreak of watching her father's hardware store fall prey to a series of bribe payouts (to city officials, to mobsters, to cops) and vowed as a girl to become a cop and make it right. "It took 30 years," she tells us in a voice-over, but now, at long last, she's in charge of the police department. (Other characters also introduce themselves via flashback, but not right away.)

Teresa's main target is Ronin Gibbons (Delroy Lindo), a powerful Chicago alderman as corrupt and conniving as the show can possibly conjure - to the point that the first few episodes reduce him to a scenery-chewing cliche in a $2,000 suit. Still, he'll more than suffice as a complex villain, as Teresa persuades Wysocki (her former partner) to help her secretly investigate crimes that might be tied to the alderman's shady real estate dealings. This then is "The Chicago Code's" long arc - breaking the code.

Besides Beals, the show's immediate strength is Clarke's dynamo performance as Wysocki, an embittered and egotistical veteran who is engaged to one woman while still sleeping with his ex-wife. Clarke has somehow managed to swallow his Australian accent whole and comes out looking, talking and feeling like a believable Chicago TV cop. (This is a much easier task for Beals, a Chicago native, who can finally flatten her vowels and press them through her nose, Chicago-style, all she likes.)

Accents are a tiny detail, but it's good to see "The Chicago Code" taking itself seriously enough to fixate on authenticity. Although I'm sure Chicagoans will easily pick out mistakes, let us give thanks for a show shot entirely on location in a location not located in Canada, eh? Here, Chicago really is Chicago.

This attention to feel and vibe helps us overlook "The Chicago Code's" frenetically unrealistic pace. The cast - including Matt Lauria, doing superb work as Wysocki's ambitious new partner; Devin Kelley as Wysocki's rookie-cop niece; and Billy Lush as an undercover cop - practically pants from scene to scene.

The viewers pant along, too, and that's fine. Too many cop shows are fat and predictably lazy from the get-go, relying too much on smartphones and lab results; "The Chicago Code" feels like an old-fashioned and vigorous foot pursuit.

The Chicago Code (one hour) premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on Fox.

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