Yet "The Chi" isn't interested in that argument, however much the show implies that Chicago's homicide rate is a deeper, more intractable problem than media caricature suggests. It's interested in the body. And the victim's family, which lost a son and a brother and a cousin. And the bystanders who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the community that has to absorb the grief of another life cut short and the likelihood of retribution exacerbating the tragedy. The entire series radiates outward from a single loss, like the tremors and aftershocks of an earthquake.
For "Chi" creator Lena Waithe, a writer and actress who won an Emmy last year for co-writing the "Thanksgiving" episode of Netflix's "Master of None," the idea for the show came from watching a news report on violence in her native city. Waithe spent her early childhood in the South Side neighborhood of Chatham — also home to Chance the Rapper, she notes — and felt she understood the people being interviewed. But something was missing.
"Since I grew up here, I think there's an instinctive knowing of the people and a desire to tell their story," Waithe says in an interview at Chicago's Langham Hotel, shortly before a screening of the "Chi" pilot for a South Side audience. "The community gets the blame for a lot of issues in the city, but the truth is, some of these things are built in.
"That's the thing I wanted to show — how people walk through the city, how they find joy, how they relate to each other. I think that's the thing that people often don't see or don't understand unless you're from here."
The death that opens the series leads to more violence, starting with the victim's father (played by Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), who seeks justice by his own hand. All the characters are entangled by the incident in one way or another, but Waithe and show runner Elwood Reid (" The Bridge ") and their writing team aim to paint a fuller picture. Other story lines include a culinary prodigy (Jason Mitchell of "Mudbound") working his way up the line at an upscale restaurant, a carefree ladies man (Jacob Latimore) who has fatherhood thrust upon him, and a sensitive kid named Kevin (Alex Hibbert).
It was this element of the show, as much as any, that spoke to fellow South Side native Common, the hip-hop superstar, actor and activist who executive-produces the show through his company, Freedom Road Productions. Common and Waithe didn't know each other before he got his hands on the script, but he offered his support immediately. Settling in next to Waithe, Common says he recognized in characters such as Kevin a piece of his own turbulent upbringing, when he had to reconcile his proximity to violence with the more ordinary business of growing up.
"Kevin witnesses a murder, but the next day he's at school, still trying to be part of a play and get with a girl," he says. "I talk to young people whose friends got killed or brother got killed or cousin got killed, but they're still out there making it and finding fun in certain things. A darkness surrounds them, but there's a light, too."
Finding a balance between the violence gripping these families and the rhythms of everyday life is an ongoing challenge for the show, but Waithe is careful not to gloss over the long-term ache of personal loss.
"It never goes away," she says. "The thing about television is that you kill a character and the next episode everything's fine. We want to show what grief looks like and the lasting effect it has on families."
As for the pervasiveness of gun culture in Chicago, Waithe offers the show as a corrective to what she calls "the false assumption that it's a bunch of dumb black males playing cowboys and Indians." She says there's a psychological component to consider beyond mere recklessness.
"I believe nothing can make a person feel more alive than having a deadly weapon in their hand," she says. "I think it's because they don't feel powerful. They don't feel human. A gun gives you the ability to end a person's life. What's more powerful than that? To me, it's equivalent to a black man in the civil rights movement holding up a sign that says, 'I am a man.' He feels validated."
Common adds: "What people get wrong about guns is thinking it's a way of life and that people want to live that way. But at a certain point, it becomes part of the culture, part of survival, and, as Lena said, some people put value in themselves because they've got a gun. Sometimes it's just the only way they know how to react."
Common turns to his own story as proof that children can find their way through if they're given better options.
"I was around [violence], but I had something else in my mind that I wanted to achieve and be," he says. "If a kid sees that, if a kid has something positive to look for and value within themselves, I guarantee you the majority of the time, they're going to go the right way. The hope is missing, so the guns are there."