Archive for March 2011

Stand alone, and you make an easy target

25 March 2011

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.]

In Defense of The Chicago Code

21 March 2011

The Fox mid-season-replacement cop show, The Chicago Code, first aired following the Super Bowl and tonight will air its seventh episode of its initial pick-up of thirteen. Sad to say, its ratings have been middling at best. TV by the Numbers considers the show a “toss-up” for renewal next season. But in my opinion, it would be a real shame if The Chicago Code is not allowed to continue for at least a few more seasons.

Wags and critics, particularly those familiar with the city of Chicago, have subjected the show to undue amounts of ridicule. “OMG, the accents!” they say, and “that address can’t possibly exist!” and, most generalizing of all, “that’s not really how the city works.” My reply: well, that’s true, and then again, it’s not. I see The Chicago Code as a fiction that reaches the truth. Its stylized portrait gets to the reality of Chicago better than true realism ever could.

Sure, Teresa Colvin’s supposedly southsider accent is fairly over-the-top. Jennifer Beals sounds like she’s channeling the “Regular Guy” from WXRT, or might be the kid sister of the Superfans (of “Da Bears” fame). But if you’ve ever really listened to a cop from Bridgeport, you’d have to admit her accent is close to the real deal; a caricature perhaps, on a par with that of Frances McDormand’s take on a Minnesotan accent in Fargo, but distinctive enough to say “if anyone in the world talks like that, it’s a Chicagoan.”

Chicago aldermen are not as overtly nefarious as Rowan Gibbons, who in lesser hands than Delroy Lindo’s might be portrayed as always on the verge of mustache-twirling villainy. Most aldermen are content to vote quietly in favor of whatever measure Mayor Daley brings before the City Council. But one look at the rap sheet of previous aldermen (according to Fox’s website, thirty aldermen were convicted of Federal crimes including bribery, extortion, and embezzlement, between 1972 and 2009) is enough to illustrate how Gibbons is a truthful, if extreme, distillation of reality.

The Chicago of The Chicago Code is a strange, ultra-heightened landscape. It is a city where you can’t drive more than two blocks without ‘L’ tracks passing overhead. Where aldermen are all-powerful guardians of the people—as well as masters of the Machiavellian. Where upon first meeting, people will flat-out ask “Cubs or Sox?” in order to determine whether they will be brothers-in-arms or lifelong adversaries. (And yes, it’s a city where an address of “1216 East Chestnut” is not a mile out into Lake Michigan.)

Honestly, is that so different from the actual Chicago?

Into that vivid backdrop, The Chicago Code gives us a group of interesting, nuanced characters, portrayed by a great cast of expert actors. Jennifer Beals’ Teresa is strong and beautiful, at times vulnerable but mostly no-nonsense and tough-as-nails; it must take serious balls to want to get on her bad side. Jason Clarke’s Wysocki and Matt Lauria’s Evers (his name a nod to “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon” maybe?) play off each other well as the mismatched detective partners. Delroy Lindo’s Alderman Gibbons is simply a delightful sonofabitch.

We also get punchy, well-informed writing. Sure, the script succumbed to a flatfooted “Cubs or Sox” discussion in the pilot episode. But just three episodes later it used such lesser-known details as the “Days of Rage” and a Haymarket Memorial bombing to tie a fictional ’70s radical group to real Chicago history.

The writers also avoided two missteps taken by another cop show in its rookie season—Blue Bloods—and they deserve kudos for having done so.

First, The Chicago Code’s use of voice-overs for each character, allowing them to introduce themselves, is a good method for drawing viewers quickly into the story (especially in the way they changed up that device with a surprise toward the end of the pilot episode). Blue Bloods, on the other hand, used some cringe-worthy expository dialog between the main cast to provide background, five minutes into that show’s pilot, that was so painfully blatant it left me wishing the show didn’t have the awesomeness of Tom Selleck and Donnie Wahlberg so I could have abandoned it right then and there.

Second, one of the major qualms I have with Blue Bloods is how in each episode, after the lead-character detective catches a case, his brother the rookie beat cop often locates a key clue or suspect, and his father—the Police Commissioner—usually gets involved somehow. This small-world contrivance makes New York seem more like a city of 800 people, rather than 8 million. The Chicago Code has the exact same character structure (although Chicago calls its top cop Superintendent, and she and the lead detective are ex-partners, not relations; and the beat cop is the detective’s niece, not his brother) but it dodges that bullet in the pilot by having Supt. Colvin hand Detective Wysocki his own task force, with authority to take over any case and assign any personnel he wants. On that simple and plausible (if not 100% realistic) foundation, it’s possible for three main characters to interact freely.

The location work too is downright brilliant. It’s refreshing and delightful to see scenes set in Chicago that use actual Chicago locations. It gets so tiresome to see other shows where an establishing second-unit shot of the city cuts to principal photography that is so obviously Everycity, USA—namely, Toronto or Vancouver. The fact that the whole production of The Chicago Code is based here is a Very Good Thing. And not just because of all the Chicago actors and Chicago crew that fill key positions.

The bank robbery scene of episode 3, “Gillis, Chase and Baby Face,” is a great example of the novel use of Chicago locations: the exterior is on Michigan Avenue, right outside the famed Wrigley Building, yet the shots never show it nor the equally distinctive Tribune Tower across the street. Instead, we see the London Guarantee Building, its face dappled by the morning sunlight that reflects off the Trump Tower, and other buildings south of the river—solid masses of masonry that make appropriate surroundings for the purported bank. Then, we head inside—to the well-kept vintage brass-and-terrazzo elegance of the Pioneer Trust & Savings Bank; seven miles from downtown, this building’s worn exterior belies its contents, and it’s a testament to the location scouts that this very fine piece of little-known Chicago architecture is on the list of possible interior locations.

Even the theme music is not an awful choice: Billy Corgan is a Chicagoan, through and through. (He’s also a Cubs fan—live with it, Wysocki.) The lyrics—which aren’t Corgan’s—tread close to inanity, but the edgy sound is right on target. Me, I would have gone with Wilco instead. But that’s just a personal preference.

The Chicago Code is a very good show, with the potential—given time—to become a great one. The broad strokes it established early on have been embellished and improved with fine details that give depth to its characters and complexity to its story arcs. I sincerely hope that creator Shawn Ryan and his team are given the chance to return to Chicago for many more seasons of The Chicago Code.

[All images in this post are ©2011 FOX Broadcasting Company.]

[Follow-up: I figured out why The Chicago Code is taking such flak from Chicagoans for its portrayal of their city.]

Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy

12 March 2011
Categories: From the armchair

Groundhog Day, 2011. The day the media deemed “The Blizzard of 2011″ in the hubristic assumption that we won’t get another one to match it for the rest of the year. I prefer to call it Thundersnow! 2011—with obligatory exclamation point and boldface and italics—because it’s not often that we get the bonus drama of thunder and lightning in the midst of a snowstorm.

Thanks to the snow’s accumulation and blowing drifts my office was closed, and I worked from home that day, and the next.

(Could have been worse—I could have been one of the hundreds of idiots innocent people oblivious enough to think, if they thought about it at all, “I take Lake Shore Drive home every night, why should tonight be any different?” even as the weather forecast shouted in seventy-two-point headlines about the impending sixty-mile-an-hour gusts off the lake and the quarter-mile-at-best visibility and the twenty-five-foot waves crashing over the breakwater to send freezing spray across the roadway. Why should anyone have wondered whether driving on an exposed, limited-access boulevard in the face of those conditions was a good idea?)

That sarcastic aside… aside, we spent the next couple of days hunkered down at home, living comfortably on our stockpile of franks and beans and telecommuting via laptop. Sitting at the dining room table, I got down to some much-needed coding, something that I had been unable to focus on at the office with its usual distractions. With noise-cancelling headphones on and iTunes in shuffle mode, I tuned (iTuned?) out the world and maximized my productivity.

In mid-afternoon, iTunes played a song I’ve listened to dozens of times in the twenty-plus years since I first heard it: “Firing Up the Sunset Gun” by Animal Logic.

Before I continue, maybe I should explain that I imagine my music collection forming a dense, elaborate web of connectivity—something like a vastly expanded version of the “Jethro Tull Family Tree” that appears in the liner notes of the band’s 20 Years compilation and depicts ties to Fairport Convention and Yes and numerous other bands. Some of the connections in my web are strictly personnel-related (so-and-so played on this record, and later formed that band), but other connections are more personal (that friend introduced me to both this album and that one). In one way or another, then, pretty much all the music in my personal collection is connected in some way to all the rest.

But amidst it all I’ve always felt like Animal Logic (and, of course, its follow-up) formed a sort of promontory: Stewart Copeland connects it to the Police, and Stanley Clarke to Return to Forever, but this was Deborah Holland’s debut; nothing else sounds anything like this band; Animal Logic II sold poorly and the band broke up to pursue other projects. To my mind, Animal Logic stands alone.

Anyway, sitting there listening to “Firing Up the Sunset Gun” I realized for the umpteenth time that I had no idea what that phrase meant. But for the first time while having that thought, I 1) was sitting at a computer and 2) could easily abide the 30-second distraction it might take to Google it and finally put that nagging-yet-trivial question to rest.

So it turns out Copeland borrowed the phrase (with the word “up” added for improved rhythm, perhaps at the expense of meaning) from the novel Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy:

Barry is a widower, his wife having died of alcoholism before he left Seattle. “Firing the sunset gun” he called her drinking. “Every day she’d be at it as early as one o’clock.” “At what?” “Firing the sunset gun.”

Now, I have to admit I’m not exceptionally familiar with 20th-Century American literature. Henry Miller bored me, or at least underwhelmed my expectations. Ayn Rand told a story that was fun enough, but which only worked if I went along with her world-view. Most of the books I read that might be considered classics of the “20th-Century American literature” aegis—Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird—were required reading in high school English classes, or fulfilled liberal-arts credits in college. Beyond that I pursued other avenues of reading interests. So amidst that desultory and unfocused regimen, I think it’s unlikely that I ever would have become aware of Walker Percy.

Except. One of my all-time favourite books is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. A book that might never have seen the light of day, if not for Toole’s mother and her persistence in bringing the novel to the attention of an instructor at Loyola University in New Orleans: one Walker Percy.

What a strange thing, at least to me. One of my favourite books, one that stands alone and unconnected in any obvious way (The Neon Bible notwithstanding) to anything else in my book collection, or indeed to anything I’ve ever read—is tangentially yet distinctly connected to a song on an album that likewise stands relatively alone within my music collection (and listening history). This connection so surprised me that, without any further knowledge of the book or its author, I immediately went out and bought a copy.

In reading Love in the Ruins, having no expectations or preconceptions about what I was getting into, I felt a bit like Percy did upon reading Confederacy: as he wrote in its introduction,

[O]ne hope remained—that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. … Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.

It took only the first half-page of Love in the Ruins for me to realize that I had been grabbed, not merely intrigued and interested, but grabbed by the shoulders and thrust headlong into an exciting tale from which there was no escape until I reached its conclusion.

In a pine grove on the southwest cusp of the interstate cloverleaf

5 P.M. / July 4

Now in these dread latter days of the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world I came to myself in a grove of young pines and the question came to me: has it happened at last?

Two more hours should tell the story. One way or the other. Either I am right and a catastrophe will occur, or it won’t and I’m crazy. In either case the outlook is not so good.

Here I sit, in any case, against a young pine, broken out in hives and waiting for the end of the world. Safe here for the moment though, flanks protected by a rise of ground on the left and an approach ramp on the right. The carbine lies across my lap.

Just below the cloverleaf, in the ruined motel, the three girls are waiting for me.

Undoubtedly something is about to happen.

Or is it that something has stopped happening?

Wow. An astonishing hook, and off we go. It’s a rollicking ride, and I enjoyed this novel immensely. I count it as one of the most engaging and enthralling pieces of fiction that I have read in years.

One final connection to note: just like A Confederacy of Dunces, Love in the Ruins has never been made into a motion picture. I wonder why.