'The Chi': TV Review

Inconsistent but promising.
1/7/2018

Emmy-winning writer Lena Waithe launches her own Showtime drama, set on the South Side of Chicago, to mixed early results, but there's potential for improvement.

There were always going to be high expectations for The Chi — the new Chicago-set, inner-city-struggles drama from Lena Waithe — even before she won an Emmy for writing one of the best and most personal episodes of Aziz Ansari's Netflix series, Master of None. But the first three episodes indicate that The Chi is a definite work in progress, with potential in parts but cliche and predictable storytelling in others. It's a drama that may even fall victim to its more worrisome shortcomings in time, and it's also a drama playing out in a TV landscape where countless stellar offerings are begging for viewers and there might not be enough patience to allow future episodes to improve.

Executive produced by Waithe and Common, the pilot for The Chi is the best of the early offerings, even though the plotting leads exactly where you expect it to — any sense of mystery or ease in connecting the dots seems less important in that episode than setting up a number of intriguing characters for what could be fuller stories down the line. In that sense, Waithe, who wrote the pilot, succeeds in setting the hook.

But big problems emerge in the second episode, which Waithe co-wrote, and especially the third episode, written by others. By then, the storytelling is troublingly routine and a flatness sets in to the pacing while certain performances fall short. If a drama series isn't showing much forward momentum by the third episode these days, it's tough to ask the audience to stick around. However, the better parts of The Chi offer at least some hope that the talent is there to patch up these early issues, though that might be giving the series credit it hasn't yet earned.

With drugs, guns and gangs a heavy presence on Chicago's South Side, The Chi begins with a talented and beloved young athlete gunned down on a street corner where he shouldn't have been. Stumbling upon the scene, Coogie (Jahking Guillory), a good kid who's probably witnessed too much of this already, sees the chance to take a necklace and a pair of basketball shoes off the dead kid, setting in motion a series of events that will, to varying degrees, ensnare Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), who helped raise the dead boy even though he wasn't his father; Brandon (Mudbound's Jason Mitchell), Coogie's half-brother who has seemingly escaped the streets to become a chef; Kevin (Moonlight's Alex Hibbert), an elementary school kid who witnesses a retaliation murder; and Det. Cruz (Armando Riesco), who tries to bring some compassion to his job on the hardened streets.

The Chi excels at drawing strong performances from a bevy of young actors, which is no easy trick. That so many of them make the grade is impressive (Hibbert is particularly good). There's less success with the adult actors, as Riesco's detective is more enigma than anything else and Mwine's soft-spoken drifter-trying-to-course-correct doesn't connect. Sonja Sohn, who plays the mother to half-brothers Coogie and Brandon, is left early on to just play in a drunk, bitter haze that doesn't offer much nuance or empathy. Sohn did stellar work on The Wire (a series some will undoubtedly and wrongly compare The Chi to), fellow actor Steven Williams (whose role does work well here) has a strong pedigree, and Mitchell and Tiffany Boone are impressive — offering evidence that it's the writing that's responsible for some of the believability issues in The Chi. But some of this might work itself out in further episodes as Waithe and her writing staff breathe more life into the characters.

Several additional storylines aren't fleshed out enough yet to know if they'll become interesting. With barely half the stories and characters piquing interest early on, The Chi doesn't come out of the gate strong and will have to overcome structural weaknesses and acting issues to have any chance to succeed, so patience will be needed.

Cast: Jahking Guillory, Jason Mitchell, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Jacob Latimore, Alex Hibbert, Tiffany Boone, Yolanda Ross, Armando Riesco, Shamon Brown, Michael Epps, Sonja Sohn, Steven Williams
Created, written and executive produced by: Lena Waithe
Premieres: Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Showtime)

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