Wednesday, May 11, 2016

REVIEW: 'Chicago P.D.' - A Shooting Forces Burgess to Interact with the State's Attorney's Office in 'Justice'

NBC's Chicago P.D. - Episode 3.21 "Justice"

After a hooded man opens fire on them, Roman is wounded and Burgess takes off after the shooter, briefly losing sight of him, and shoots when she relocates him turning in her direction with a glimmer of silver in his hand. Protests begin as the public views the case as another incidence of an officer shooting an unarmed African American teenager. ASA Peter Stone and his team need to collect enough evidence to indict the teen and clear Burgess.

Over the past few years, Dick Wolf has once again solidified himself as the mega producer for NBC. He found success on the broadcast network for over two decades with the Law & Order franchise. And now, that success has continued with the Chicago universe. The new franchise already spans three series - Fire, P.D. and Med - airing across Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Those three dramas plus Law & Order: SVU have brought stability to NBC. After a very troubling decade of programming, the network is once again operating from a position of strength with its dramas. Wolf has played a huge part in that. So, it should come as no surprise that the network is hoping to spin off the Chicago franchise yet again - this time looking into the legal system of the Windy City.

All of the Chicago spinoffs so far have started as backdoor pilots. That has been a very understandable decision. This universe prides itself on characters from all three shows seamlessly being able to crossover with one another like it's no big deal. Of course, there are only a few instances were there is a genuine friendship or relationship between the shows - namely Mouch and Platt as well as the Dawson siblings. And yet, the integration of this expansive universe makes it easy for one of the shows to do a backdoor pilot where new characters hoping to be spun off can just show up and take over for a week. However, the franchise hasn't had a whole lot of luck with its backdoor pilots. The P.D. one in the first season of Fire was such a complete mess that the subsequent series basically scrapped everything established in it. And then, two years later with Med, it was a very manipulative episode that really didn't do a great job at establishing the Med characters as people the audience should care about. That's still a concern for that show which is having trouble finding itself despite airing a full season already. So the bar really isn't set that high for the potential Justice offshoot here.

The creative team decides to address those problems of the past by actually presenting an episodic story that has immense emotional material. The story on display throughout this episode plays into the topical conversation about race relations and law enforcement. It's such a good thing that the franchise decided to air the Justice backdoor pilot as an episode of P.D. The two previous ones worked fine on Fire. But the story just flows more naturally between P.D. and Justice here. As Wolf has explored comprehensively over the years, the police and prosecution have to work hand in hard to make sure that justice is found in every case. It's a thematic story covered overly well in Law & Order. So the conceit works and that structure is applied nicely to the episodic context here. The story starts off with the P.D. characters reacting to this horrible thing done to Roman and Burgess. And then, the Justice team headed up by Philip Winchester's Peter Stone comes in and takes over to make sure this case doesn't become a scandalizing nightmare for the city.

This episode works because so much of the legal aspect focuses on Stone. It's because of that fixation that the story feels grounded. It makes it feel like this is a narrative worth exploring more fully in its own series. Winchester has to carry so much of this episode and he does so admirably. At times, he does feel a little uncomfortable. Stone's interactions with Voight are filled with tension because Stone is the prosecutor who got Voight sent to jail. And yet, that's a dynamic that doesn't mean anything. It's a tantalizing piece of information that just doesn't go anywhere. Both are professional men. But whenever they interact, a spark is missing. Stone is much more interesting when he's trying to get to the bottom of this case. He needs to understand the motive behind this shooting. He needs to get inside the mind of this young perpetrator.

The previous two backdoor pilots failed because they weren't really centered around a compelling character who could launch a new show. This one is with Stone. He's the only Justice character who is actually given something to do. He's also the only one actually given a name to remember. Granted, Peter Stone is a pretty cool name. But the rest of the ensemble work doesn't even try to flesh out characters. The story takes precedence. So that means characters just pop up in order to advance the plot forward. So, there are the two investigations conducting their own search for the truth instead of the Intelligence unit. There's another prosecutor who mainly just hands Stone the evidence during the trial. And then, there's the State's Attorney who gets to state his opinion about the importance of this case and how it may affect him getting re-elected. All of them are very bland and aren't given any characterizations at all. Stone carries the brunt of the work. That's something that will need to change moving forward should Justice be picked up to series. The Chicago shows work as ensemble pieces. Yes, a white man toplines all of the shows. But their stories are never more important than any of the other supporting characters. Right now, Stone is the only one of importance. That's not inherently bad. It's a good first step for a series. Now, the rest of it needs to be developed.

This story packs so much importance that it needed to take the priority over characters. And when it does focus on the emotional impact on the characters, it needed to be on Burgess and Roman. This horrifying thing happened to them. A teenager shoots at them in their patrol car while they are parked. Roman is seriously injured (for a little while at least) while Burgess faces suspicion on whether or not she ultimately shot the right kid. Their reactions are valid. And yet, their reactions are also limited by the amount of time spent on the Justice characters. Getting shot at yet again in the line of duty and facing public backlash will change Roman and Burgess' partnership much more so than their hook up. Their worlds change because of this event. It's unclear what kind of effect that will have moving forward. Again, the case takes precedence in this episode. Burgess and Roman are sidelined until the legal matter is over with. And even then, Stone has to settle so that the kid definitively has jail time. But still this hour does an adequate job exploring the nuances of this situation. It should be interesting to see what happens next.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Justice" was directed by Jean de Segonzac with story by Dick Wolf and teleplay by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas & Matt Olmstead.
  • This backdoor pilot very deliberately brings characters in from the other two shows as well. Med's Maggie, Connor and Choi treat Roman and the shooter with their injures while Fire's Severide helps with the search for the missing gun in the river.
  • Lorraine Toussaint reprises her role as a defense attorney from the original Law & Order as well. She won't be a continuing character on Justice should it be picked up. But it just further shows the connections between the Dick Wolf shows.
  • Stone spends so much time focusing on the motive of the shooter than it's a little bit of a let down that it's a simple explanation of a beloved family member being harassed and ultimately killed because of a racist police officer. 
  • Lindsay, Platt and Voight doing their best to comfort Burgess as she prepares to testify in the case builds on strong relationship work between the characters. However, it's weird when Lindsay just shows up in Roman's apartment helping the two decide what to do next.
  • Ruzek barely has any reaction at all to learning that Burgess and Roman slept together. But then again, he has been pretty insufferable since Burgress called off their engagement. He needs to mature but he feels stuck in the same old pattern right now.
  • This franchise has a habit of characters being injured in the line of duty but then being miraculously recovered just a little while later. Roman's injuries are severe. That's what the audience is led to believe. And yet, by the end of the hour, he seems like he's back to normal except for a few bandages.
  • It seems like an easy decision on NBC's part to pick up Justice to series. But then again, that seemed like a guarantee long before this episode actually aired. A fourth series in the franchise may be over-saturation but it still seems like something that NBC will likely do. After all, P.D. and Med were greenlit despite having more problematic backdoor pilots.