From the moment the triumphant chords of Chance the Rapper’s “All We Got” surges out of your TV, it’s clear that Showtime’s new series “The Chi” demands attention. And with its ability to substantiate the everyday tragedies and struggles of life in one of America’s most dangerous neighborhoods, there is no question that it deserves it.

Set in the concrete jungle of the Southside of Chicago, “The Chi” follows the young and the old as they do everything from auditioning for a school play to hunting down a murderer. The show opens on Coogie (Jahking Guillory, “Kicks”) biking through his city, picking up a can of soda and some jerky to feed a dog across town. There is an aura of freedom around Coogie as he goes through his day; the dominating Chicago skyline emerges from behind his windblown afro as, through headphones, Chance reminds him that  “they don’t give nothing away, you gotta fight for your way.” But more than just freedom, Coogie emits innocence, a surprising quality for a teen living in a city where gang members can be as young as 13.

Yet unsurprisingly, the idyllic image of this young man is shattered by two gunshots — not in himself, but through the body of the young man he finds lying in the middle of the sidewalk. It’s this moment that distinguishes the life of kids on the Southside from nearly anywhere else in the world. Young Coogie, who loves to barter at bodegas and cook with his brother, stands over the corpse of a boy not three years his senior. It is clear this is nothing new to him, and after checking the surroundings and grabbing the dead boy’s chain and shoes, Coogie puts his hood up and walks into the streets, hiding his face to minimize the chance that he will be the next cold body lying facedown on the asphalt.

As the story progresses, “The Chi” introduces viewers to countless plotlines and characters that ultimately become intertwined. Though seemingly distant, the life of every character touches another, through instances as small as buying some shoes or as grand as identifying a murderer. Every character is a complement, be it through friend or enemy, to another. Take Ronnie (Ntare Mwine, “Queen of Katwe”) and Brandon (Jason Mitchell, “Straight Outta Compton”), one an institutionalized Southsider, the other a young up-and-coming chef with a wealthy girlfriend who’s desperate for his career to take off so he can escape the alcohol-driven disdain of his mother. The two lead opposite lives for most of the episode, yet their paths eventually meet at a point that heightens the uncertainty of security for anyone on these Chicago streets.

Security, or lack thereof, is one thing that unites every single character. Like Emmett (Jacob Latimore, “Detroit”) who’s content in his playboy life until a baby landed on his doorstep, paternity test in tow. Parents are secure in their children’s safety, but by the episode’s end, two boys below the age of 18 are dead and the witnesses come as young as junior-high. If there is just one thing that the “The Chi” wants its viewers to understand, it is that on the Southside of Chicago life is never guaranteed. The slightest misstep, a single wrong look, a train taken five minutes earlier than usual — any one of these insignificant inconveniences could be a death sentence. Chicago is the birthplace of a First Lady and countless other successful public figures. Yet, it is also the breeding ground for such an intense level of violence that The New York Times has an entire series dedicated to its brutality. Innocence is never an option; you either learn to maneuver the formidable streets, or you die in them.

While “The Chi”’s ability to humanize the victims of Chicago violence — plastered on websites and in print — is admirable, what is truly impressive about the show is how it makes you feel exactly like its characters: There are still moments of love and moments of joy, but even in the scenes that make you smile and laugh, the threat of violence is omnipresent. That is not to say that the Southside of Chicago is the “total disaster” that some politicians make it out to be. The men and women in the show are not “thugs” or “welfare queens.” They are real, complex people living in a city that so much of America has lost hope in. But they haven’t given up on their city, not yet, and through every shared experience, every heartbreak, every life-changing surprise, it’s clear that although these streets may try their very best to beat them, not a single person is unwilling and unable to fight back. 

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *