The Chicago Code is a terrific show, and I’m enjoying it a lot. As I previously posted, I sincerely hope it wins renewal despite its middling ratings.
However, as I’ve pondered the show and the critical response it’s getting, I have come to realize why Chicagoans are so dismally, scathingly, and—it must be said—petulantly unwilling to cut the show any slack whatsoever in its depiction of the city and its citizens. Unfortunately for The Chicago Code, the reason is something that is utterly beyond the show’s control:
The Chicago Code is the only truly Chicago-based television show to air, ever.
Seriously, name another show that takes place in Chicago that was actually made here too. Hill Street Blues (which, I should mention, left its locale tantalizingly unspecified) filmed its famous opening sequence here, but every episode was filmed in Los Angeles. So too Good Times, Married…with Children, and The Bob Newhart Show. ER used a handful of on-location scenes, but only a few per season, as did Chicago Hope. Leverage filmed its pilot here, then hightailed it to the West Coast. The Matadors pilot has not yet made it to broadcast.
Early Edition. Perfect Strangers. My Boys. Currently, Mike & Molly and The Good Wife. You name a show—and Wikipedia has a category listing 71 “Television shows set in Chicago, Illinois”—and it almost certainly consists of second-unit establishing shots of Chicago, combined with principal photography made Anywhere But Here.
So into that enormous, glaring void comes The Chicago Code, a show that not only purports to dramatize life in the CPD, it even has the audacity to include “Chicago” in its title. Every scene is filmed in the city (or very near it), with the result that every exterior shot is instantly recognizable for its “Chicago-ness” even when notable landmarks cannot be seen.
These are some big boots to fill. It doesn’t help that, as Alex Kotlowitz wrote in Never a City So Real, “Chicagoans are a possessive sort. They have set notions of how people ought to think of their home.” Chicagoans are so unaccustomed to seeing their city depicted at all on-screen—except in the movies, in period pieces like Public Enemies and Road to Perdition, or comic book renditions like The Dark Knight and the upcoming Transformers 3—that when a television show comes along and tries to show Chicago as it is now, today, the bar is set to an impossibly high degree of difficulty.
But I think The Chicago Code succeeds. As I said before, it’s a stylized version of the city that approaches truth better than reality ever could. And it’s great to see a show that’s produced here lock, stock and barrel, even its soundstage interiors—which could be done anywhere, but which are made at the facilities of Chicago Studio City on the west side.
Even its actors have strong Chicago ties. Jennifer Beals is the obvious mention, as she was born and raised in the city. But aside from her it’s amazing to watch the sheer number of secondary characters being portrayed by veteran Chicago stage and screen actors. Examples include the ever-excellent Jeff Perry, Steppenwolf Theatre Company co-founder, in a prime guest spot; Joseph Jefferson Award-winners James Sie, Jacqueline Williams, and Mike Nussbaum in notable supporting roles; and numerous Jeff Award nominees as well. This is high-caliber talent, made right here in Chicago.
So watch this show, Chicagoans, enjoy it on its merits, and stop nitpicking at its trivial departures from what you might perceive as the reality of Chicago. This is exactly the kind of production this city needs to help it become—as it was some hundred years ago—one of the world’s great film capitals.
[Follow-up: Aha, I knew there had to be at least one exception: The Beast starring Patrick Swayze. In a separate post, I ponder that show and its place in Chicago filmdom.]