Television shows are getting so good at relevance and realism that it's always worth reminding ourselves that they're still works of fiction. They are drawn from life and can deliver universal truths, but they're not here to carry the extra burdens of advocacy journalism. Showtime's compelling yet structurally wobbly drama "The Chi," created by Emmy-winning writer Lena Waithe, is a clear demonstration of how a story is not the same as a report.
Set on the South Side of Chicago, a city that holds the dishonor of having America's highest murder count (despite a significant drop in killings in 2017), "The Chi" advertises itself as yet another up-close and personal story about life in the violent inner city. It gives off the feel of a show with an urgent message, which, for some viewers, feels less like an incentive to watch and more like an assignment.
But do check it out. "The Chi" (premiering Sunday) has more to offer than its familiar display of drug-related shootings, corruption within a police department and the other hallmarks of crime stories that mean serious business. One noticeable difference here is how the show takes a refreshing interest in the everyday lives of children — as young as the squalling baby boy who puts a dent in his teen father's Lothario lifestyle and as innocent as a trio of middle-school boys inexorably pulled into the violence that surrounds them.
It begins gently, even dreamily, by following a free-spirited teenage boy named Coogie (Jahking Guillory), who ambles around his neighborhood on bicycle and stops late one night at a fence in an alley to secretly feed snacks to a drug dealer's chained-up pit bull. It's here that Coogie witnesses the shooting death of a high school basketball star; approaching the body, he unwisely helps himself to the victim's shoes, phone and jewelry.
Rippling outward, "The Chi" acquaints us with a neighborhood and the people who are in some way proximate to the murder, including the victim's father, a drifter named Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) who vows revenge.
A determined police detective, Rick Cruz (Armando Riesco), brings Coogie in for questioning; Coogie's alcoholic mother (Sonja Sohn) agrees to let her older son, Brandon (Jason Mitchell), an aspiring prep cook in a hipster restaurant, look after Coogie. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, 12-year-old Kevin (Alex Hibbert) defies the teasing of his best friends (Michael Epps; Shamon Brown) to audition for his middle-school's production of "The Wiz" — his attempt to impress a girl. Kevin's older sister, Kiesha (Birgundi Baker), has started hooking up with Emmet (Jacob Latimore), a ladies' man who acquires and sells highly sought sneakers and works part time at a neighborhood greasy-spoon.
Notice how in all that detail there is no mention of gang warfare, drug deals and shootings. Waithe is from the South Side; with showrunner Elwood Reid and the show's writers, she has made sure that "The Chi" demonstrates the dignity in routine and the concept that home is home, even amid poverty and violence. It effortlessly and authentically sketches scenes of ordinariness, helping a viewer see that people living on the South Side do not exist merely to become the nouns in tomorrow morning's bad-news headline. At the same time, "The Chi" doesn't present its characters as unrealistically pure of deed; even banal transactions and conversations seem fraught with wariness and moral qualms.
Still, it isn't long before we get a shocking reminder that "The Chi" is first and foremost a crime drama — one that sacrifices its most compelling character in the first episode. An initial misunderstanding leads to another, which leads to further violence, and before you know it, "The Chi" begins to look pretty much like a gritty Chicago-based premium-cable crime drama called "The Chi."
Progressing with a crime-focused story arc that struggles to cohere, "The Chi" is much better when it transpires in living rooms and kitchens instead of alleys and poorly lit sidewalks. Waithe, after all, won an Emmy last year for writing an episode of Aziz Ansari's Netflix dramedy "Master of None" (in which she also co-stars) that brought viewers into a black family's home for several years' worth of Thanksgiving dinners.
"The Chi" is similarly intimate in those moments that are about families and friends trying to get along — and the cast is particularly adept at bringing those subtler emotions to the surface. At the same time, its more menacing characters and intense moments tend to fall flat.
I realize it sounds extraordinarily privileged to suggest that the South Side's crime rate is getting in the way of the sweeter tales of a neighborhood and its people. Perhaps that's the strongest point "The Chi" makes: When you're living in the middle of the nation's highest body count, it becomes nearly impossible to pretend that life goes on. The narrative interruption is all too real.
The Chi (one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.