With as much TV as there is to claim our attention, it’s imperative that a new TV show win over its audience right out of the gate. There is, perhaps rightfully, no patience to let a show find itself or to finally “get good.” Thankfully for The Chi, Showtime’s new coming-of-age series set in the South Side of Chicago, its first episode may be its strongest. The series comes from Lena Waithe, who has done exceptional work on Netflix’s Master of None. The Chi is telling a much more sprawling tale than that series, but the way it makes each of its stories unique and instantly worth investing in is no minor feat.
The Chi’s world is one of interconnection that starts with a murder, which (through a desire for vengeance initially fueled by misinformation) creates a domino effect of violence around the neighborhood. Any character who touches it, however tangentially, becomes caught in its web. It starts with a smart, care-free teenager named Coogie (Jahking Guillory), and moves on to his brother Brandon (Jason Mitchell) who is trying to raise himself up out of the neighborhood through a promising career at a restaurant. There’s a kid at the local school, Kevin (Alex R. Hibbert), who wants to spend his days trying to woo a classmate and hang out with his friends, but who gets pulled into the darkness as well.
From there we’re introduced to a host of other characters who becoming increasingly tied to one another through this spreading crime, including Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), who wants to avenge his slain son, and a well-meaning police officer (Armando Reisco) who ends up doing more harm than good.
Though a string of murders unites these characters (and many, many more), it’s when the show focuses on each in their own element that it’s at its best. One fun, recurring plot device is how Kevin and his friends keep accidentally ending up at rehearsals for a school production of The Wiz. But those lighter moments are juxtaposed with more sinister ones, like when Kevin’s friend is having fun at a party doing a silly dance, and goes home to ridicule by his drug-dealer brother in a house full of hashish and hangers-on. It’s not subtle, but there aren’t many subtleties in the South Side of The Chi.
More than anything, The Chi investigates the tension between trying to do the right thing and trying to survive. They’re not always diametrically opposed, but in most of these stories, the harder someone tries to help, the more they get pulled into the mire.
By the third episode though, things start to get a little unwieldy, and as enjoyable it is to follow the exploits of Jacob Latimore’s Emmett as he hustles to feed his shoe addiction and pay for a son he isn’t sure is his (all while trying to play other women on the side), the multitude of side-stories start to stagnate the overall flow. In a more marked instance, the fourth episode — the last episode available for review — relies heavily on an episodic mystery over an act of violence teased at the end of the previous hour, but it’s so easy to figure out that the many flashbacks around the event feel like they’re just filling time.
Another divisive aspect may be The Chi’s style, one that is the most distracting during the Rick Famuyiwa-directed pilot. Slow-motion is used in a way that can feel a little too retro, or as if it’s trying to make sure viewers understand that these are pivotal emotional moments. The series is telling a very layered story, but it’s not a complicated one. Its character work is exceptional, thanks to a great cast (especially the kids, who put in some of the funniest and most emotional work), but its plotting can be a little repetitive.
The Chi is, ultimately, something very different for Showtime, and a series that feels like it’s moving in the right direction for the network, one that is an ensemble piece rather than focusing on one character (think of Weeds, Dexter, Homeland, and other Showtime series that burn plot too quickly and feel a little claustrophobic after awhile). Where The Chi really shines though is in the way Waithe and her writers room have a talent for crafting natural dialogue and the cadence of everyday speech. Despite its dark turns, the series also trades in hope, and it’s instantly engaging on an emotional level. We’re not invited as tourists to the South Side, but to notice the connections, and to see what’s real.
The Chi premieres Sunday, January 7th on Showtime.