Sunday, January 7, 2018

REVIEW: 'The Chi' - An Intricate Narrative is Introduced that Connects Citizens of a Neighborhood in 'Pilot'

Showtime's The Chi - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

A fateful event sends shockwaves through a community on the South Side of Chicago and connects the lives of Brandon, Ronnie, Emmett and Kevin in wholly unexpected ways.

Lena Waithe became a breakout performer through Netflix's Master of None. She won an Emmy last year for writing the "Thanksgiving" episode of that show. It was a historic win because she was the first woman of color to win in that category. As such, the anticipation was high to see what Waithe would create next. Fortunately, audiences didn't have to wait very long. The Chi was already in the works at Showtime, with it being one of the first new shows of 2018. This is a very promising and intense premiere as well. It centers on a community that has become infamous over the last few years thanks to the bigoted talks of constant violence from the current presidential administration. Waithe and her team - which includes Common as an executive producer and Rick Famuyiwa as a director - aren't shying away from the true realities of this world. This premiere features two significant deaths that kick the narrative into motion. Some characters are defined through those personal tragedies. But The Chi is doing something incredibly smart and inspired as well by actually spending time with the people of this community. It aims to paint a rich tapestry of the people in this world. Some are forever condemned to live in this place for the rest of their lives. They've accepted that and have found a way to thrive as well. Others are more ambitious and just dealing with the realities of trying to pull themselves up to a better life. It's a fascinating look at the many ways people are connected through a community. This premiere doesn't immediately reveal how this ensemble of characters are connected. Most of them just happen to see the others walking around in the neighborhood. But it's also abundantly clear that they will influence the others' lives after this inciting incident takes place.

The audience is introduced to Coogie right away. He has the semblance of being the lead of the show for the longest time here. He's introduced just casually riding his bike around the city. He's in his own world doing his best to negotiate the best life for himself. He will barter with the owner of the local convenience store. But he also keeps coming back to the place as well because it's a reliable store for him. He has made a habit out of caring for a dog in the neighborhood being abused and forgotten by his owners. That shows that Coogie is perceptive and caring. He just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. His death isn't the first one that sets this narrative into motion. He doesn't even witness that central crime. He just sees the aftermath. Someone he doesn't know has been gunned down on a street corner. There are no clues whatsoever as to what happened to him. Coogie just rides up to him and notices the sneakers and chain. He steals them and that's what casts suspicion on him. That's the action that quickly spirals out into destruction and chaos. It's the decision that leads to him sitting down with Detective Cruz who is able to deduce that Coogie didn't have anything to do with the crime. But it's also the decision that paints a target on his back in the neighborhood. He just wants to sell these shoes and continue riding his bike. Instead, the distraught father of the man killed, Ronnie, decides to kill him.

Ronnie immediately comes across as a horrible and off-putting man. He's a man who has lived in this neighborhood his entire life. He still embraces that "player" mentality even though he's still completely in love with the family he has seemingly lost. He raised a son with the woman he loved. He did that even knowing that the son wasn't biologically his. That makes him a more sympathetic character. He stood by this woman even when he didn't have to. He was supportive in her time of need. That's what he's doing right now as well. He decides to step up and give her the justice she needs in the aftermath of her son's death. It's clear that Ronnie has some kind of history with the police. But he's also able to recognize that something has happened to his son and he needs to know just how bad it is. When he sees the body on the table, he's just as distraught and confused as the rest of the world. He wants to just be the supportive shoulder to cry on. But this system demands him to get justice. He works the system of the neighborhood. It's a world he's been a part of his entire life. He trusts his neighbors to tell him the truth and get justice for his son more than the police being able to solve the crime. And it all hinges around some eyewitness testimony of Coogie being picked up by the cops and being released. Ronnie quickly jumps to the worst conclusion. He confronts Coogie and assigns blame solely because of the chain he is wearing. It's all a tragic case of misunderstanding. No one is taking the time to truly understand what is really going on with this other person. Ronnie is distraught and not thinking straight. He feels the need to avenge his son's death. But that sparks even more tragedy that will only complicate the story increasingly moving forward.

And so now, it's up to Coogie's family to avenge his death. That burden now falls on them to get back at Ronnie for removing their beloved family member from this world too soon for no understandable reason. Brandon is introduced early in this episode as well as someone trying to work within the system to earn his way up to opening a restaurant with his girlfriend, Jerrika. He's the one slightly removed from the community. Sure, he and Jerrika share a vehicle. They have slightly more wealth and the ambition to go after the opportunities that will lead to improvement in their lives in the future. They have a game plan. Brandon just needs to impress his bosses at work. That's the next step to achieving their goals. It's over halfway through the pilot when the audience becomes aware that Brandon and Coogie are brothers. It's only after Coogie dies that the audience learns they are actually half brothers. That bond is immediate though. Brandon knows what's good for Coogie. He knows it's much better if he spends time at his house instead of returning to live with their mother, who is constantly drunk and enraged at the world around her. She takes her frustrations out on her children. That's not a healthy environment for Coogie to be in after he is released from prison. But Coogie still felt the pull back to that fateful corner to retrieve his bike and the items he stole. He still felt required to go to the convenience store. And that's what allows him to be seen and killed by Ronnie.

All of this seems so completely random. And yet, the show does a careful and precise job of laying out this tapestry of characters. It makes it clear right away that everyone is going to be connected in some way. Those connections may not be clear right away either. Sometimes they are just minor things. Emmett has the perception of being a major character in this show as well. But he's basically just off dealing with his newfound reality of having to be a dad to his child. He did know Coogie through their business arrangement. He's able to help Brandon figure out what happened to Coogie. But that's about it for now. Similarly, Kevin is the youngest person of this ensemble. He's just the kid going to school and having an innocent crush on a girl. However, he's hit by this tragic world as well because he's a witness to Ronnie killing Coogie. He's at risk of being killed as well because Ronnie sees him while fleeing the scene of the crime. But he doesn't kill again. Kevin just wants to leave all of this behind and be grateful for still being alive. He's able to return to school and get caught up in that world once more. But he keeps getting pulled back into this mysterious tragedy. It's Brandon who comes calling. He's desperate for information. He is able to trade Coogie's bike for it from Kevin. Kevin points Ronnie out to Brandon. And so, the vicious cycle has the potential of repeating now. Will Brandon make the same mistakes that Ronnie did? If so, he would be jeopardizing his own future. Or will he try to understand the situation and use the system to his advantage? It's a fascinating dilemma for him at the moment because the emotions are still so incredibly raw.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Lena Waithe and directed by Rick Famuyiwa.
  • A lot of this premiere is simply setting up this world and the plot. However, it does feature one tremendous actor showcase moment for Jason Mitchell. The eulogy Brandon gives at Coogie's funeral is so absolutely devastating and emotional. It's already so easy to get swept up in the emotion of it all despite not even spending an hour yet with these characters. It's passionate in a way that makes the stakes of this story abundantly clear.
  • It is somewhat surprising to see how male-driven this show is. That's not an inherently bad thing. It's still a show about the black experience. The women just don't have a lot to do in this premiere. Jerrika just has to be the supportive girlfriend for Brandon. Laverne has to be the alcoholic mother creating a scene after the funeral. And Jada has to be the concerned mother who won't raise Emmett's son for him.
  • It's a little lame and formulaic to see the growing flirtation for a potential love triangle involving Brandon, Jerrika and his boss at work. He's only getting this opportunity to get promoted because she sees something in him. That's a spark that could become romantic at any moment. This job gives him comfort even after his brother is killed. So, that passion and desire will be a huge motivation for him this season.
  • Kevin's sister also happens to be connected with Emmett. That's how the two of them know each other. That's important for when Brandon runs into Emmett who can help him figure out what happened to Coogie. But it's also noticeable that the show doesn't call attention to the fact that Kevin is talking about what he saw to several people.
  • And yet, it's pleasant and simple to see Kevin just audition for The Wiz at his school. It's something he doesn't want to do at all. He did it first to impress this girl. Then, the music director forced him to stick with his commitment. And it's not played as a big revelatory moment either. He hasn't suddenly found a new passion that will be his ticket out of this neighborhood. It's just going to be something he's involved with this season.