Sunday, March 5, 2017

REVIEW: 'Chicago Justice' - Stone Faces Off with a Familiar Face in Court in 'Uncertainty Principle'

NBC's Chicago Justice - Episode 1.02 "Uncertainty Principle"

Stone and the State's Attorney team investigates the chain of events following the arrest and death of a young man, ultimately seeking charges against Police, Fire Department and Medical personnel, only to have a recalcitrant Grand Jury indict a single individual: Officer Kevin Atwater. Paul Robinette defends Atwater.

Dick Wolf's Chicago franchise has a throwback appeal to it. The shows aspire to be the type of comfort food shows that dominated the medium in previous decades. The shows don't include some vast conspiracy. They are simply grounded stories about certain characters in unique professions who deserve to be celebrate. It's a formula that has already worked for firefighters, detectives and doctors. And now, the franchise has moved on to lawyers with the fourth spinoff. All of these shows share a common thread. They each populate a unique corner of this world but exist in the same universe. That allows for characters from all of the shows to randomly pop up on one another. It's a lot more casual with its crossovers. That's a distinctive approach that allows for a full universe in all of these shows. The growth has been much appreciated. And yet, the Chicago shows also take a lot from the Law & Order franchise. Of course, it's also stated that it exists in the same universe - with Chicago P.D. and Law & Order: SVU crossing over a couple of times now. But Chicago Justice is unique because it seems to be approaching things from a narrative perspective the same way that the original Law & Order used to do two decades ago - with one half focusing on the investigation and the next focusing on the trial.

"Uncertainty Principle" essentially plays as an episode of Law & Order too. That's not an inherently bad things either. The Law & Order formula is strong and unique. It allows for plenty of twists and turns while also allowing strong character moments. This show also has a slimmed down cast compared to the other Chicago shows. There are only five series regulars - which include two investigators, two prosecutors and one State's Attorney. That's how the rundown was on Law & Order. It also makes it so this show focuses on one case per episode. It doesn't attempt to juggle multiple storylines that are all connected through the legal profession somehow. That's the opposite of P.D. which had the Intelligence investigations and the adventures of two beat cops for a long time. It's streamlined itself a little bit as of late. But it still has a unique perspective on the subject matter. Justice seems to as well. Things just become a little too complicated throughout this hour because it pulls on the audience's own awareness of what's going on over on P.D.

So, the case-of-the-week centers on a drug dealer who died while in police custody. The timeline is a little complicated because it includes him getting picked up off the street, spending some time in a holding cell, an ambulance ride, and a couple hours in a busy emergency room. It makes the investigation into his death a little widespread. Stone and his team have to cast a wide net to see what sticks. In the end, charges are only brought against one police: P.D.'s Atwater. He was the one who arrested the criminal. He had to chase him and was a little rough in getting the handcuffs on. It's believed that interaction was what led to his injuries. It's not some full indictment of the Intelligence unit and how rough they can get at times with suspects. It could have been a whole lot worse. Instead, this plays as unintentional murder. Of course, it's still murder. So, that leaves Atwater's future up in the air. And yet, there is always the doubt that anything will seriously happen to him here. Putting a known character from one of the other shows on trial for murder easily gives this hour a hook. However, it always seems unlikely that he'll go to jail for this crime and ruin his status on the other show. It's a way to give tension to this hour because it's personal. But it also takes away the power and surprise of the end because it seems inevitable that new evidence will come to light that will prove his innocence.

And yet, everything is still fascinating from a storytelling perspective because this case brings out interesting and different emotions from Antonio and Stone. Antonio used to work with Atwater. They were in the same unit. No, they don't have some kind of complex history together. They are just brothers in blue who pledged to have each other's backs at all times. But Antonio is no longer working for the Chicago police department. He's at the State's Attorney's office now. That means he has to investigate his former colleague once this accusation appears. He has his back and supports him throughout this process. But he also doesn't try to suppress any evidence either. In fact, it's Antonio who gets all of the footage from the police department that allows the investigation to get a clear rendering of what happened. He never lets his personal allegiance interfere with the job. That's an admirable quality even when Atwater gets overwhelmed about how far all of this eventually goes. Of course, Antonio is the one who finds the evidence that proves Atwater is innocent in all of this. Everything started turning for the victim once he appeared to be drunk. That didn't happen until he was in holding and in a cell with another violent individual. Sure, it's a bit ridiculous that this one guy accidentally killed two people in the same day. But that's the twist that brings this episode to a close.

The other interesting dynamic is in the courtroom where the show completely pays homage to Law & Order. Peter Stone is the lead prosecutor on this case. He also happens to be the son of L&O's Ben Stone. And now, he's going up against Paul Robinette - who used to work with Ben Stone on the original series. So, the comparisons are easy to draw because they are right there on the screen for the audience to see. Both Stone and Robinette prove themselves to be skilled lawyers with this case. And yet, their dynamic is largely about Stone's relationship with his father. Apparently, both of them left the guy. Robinette left for a successful career as a defense attorney - who now specializes in defending police officers. Meanwhile, Peter left for a solid career in Chicago and doesn't speak to his father. It's all building to that moment in the end where Peter picks up the phone and calls his dad. It's meant to be a bridge of healing between father and son. And yet, there really isn't any kind of context for why they are estranged in the first place. It's just important for this hour to give Peter and Robinette something to talk about besides the case. Plus, it allows the hour to end on that hopeful note of a better future in the Stone family.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Uncertainty Principle" was written by William N. Fordes and directed by Norberto Barba.
  • Richard Brooks isn't the first Law & Order alum to reprise their role on Chicago Justice. Tovah Feldshuh did the same in last week's big crossover event and Lorraine Toussaint did so in the backdoor pilot for the show last year. And yet, it seems pretty unlikely that Michael Moriarty will pop up as Ben Stone, right? Even though the familial connection makes it seem more likely.
  • Carl Weathers' gravelly voice seems to be a defining characteristic of his character, State's Attorney Mark Jefferies. It gives him an aura of authority. It works. Hopefully, he'll do more than just give Stone and Anna some brief instructions of what to do every week though.
  • Joelle Carter and Monica Barbaro really haven't stood out in the cast so far. They largely play second fiddle to whatever Antonio and Stone are up to. Perhaps that will change. They deserve to be multi-dimensional characters as well whose lives are complicated by the job.
  • The brief appearances by P.D.'s Voight and Platt seem pretty pointless. They add to the realistic atmosphere of the story but don't really offer anything of importance to the main case. It just shows that those connections are still there.
  • How long have Antonio and Laura actually been working together? He left P.D. in November for this job. And yet, he still has to be reminded that he no longer works for Intelligence and that Laura is his only partner right now.
  • Stone making sure that he issues a public apology to Atwater in the courtroom and on the record shows that the show has an optimistic look at the law. It wants to believe that civil servants do their best but also apologize when a mistake is made. That's perhaps too simple but it also really feels good in the moment.