Like Chicago, CNN has been in need of a change of pace. But whereas Chicago’s issues include budget deficits and gang violence, CNN’s are more about failed celebrity partnerships, and ratings too dependent on the vagaries of the news cycle. CNN has made an interesting change recently though, by backing provocative documentary films such as Blackfish, and now, partnering with Robert Redford‘s Sundance Productions for an eight-episode documentary series, Chicagoland.
Though cursory mention is given to Chicago’s more positive and well-known attributes (the birth of the blues, the Blackhawks’ 2013 Stanley Cup win, the rich history of its writers and comedians), Chicagoland is more interested in giving the majority of its time to local politics, the school system and the police force.
In this way, Chicagoland feels like a kind of junior heir apparent to David Simon‘s fictional, but truth-telling, Baltimore-based series The Wire, which ran on HBO from 2002 to 2008. That show used the police force as a framework to illustrate and investigate all aspects of local institutions, including the political machine and the schools (like Chicagoland does), and how they all ultimately connect.
But while The Wire‘s focus on the brokenness of these institutions created a bleak cloud over its compelling drama, Chicagoland weaves in a number of positive stories, along with its representation of those things that are simply without an answer. Its first episode is a swirl of narratives, often oscillating between the desperation of children who fear for their lives just walking to school, and the city’s high-profile mayor, President Obama’s former Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel.
Many will see at least the first episode of Chicagoland as an ode to the larger-the-life figure of Emanuel, whom a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times refers to on the series as “Richard Daley with a circumcision.” But the start of Emanuel’s tenure was initially plagued by an escalation of Chicago’s biggest fundamental problems, which led to the controversial closing of 50 schools, among other severe budget cuts. One of Emanuel’s most outspoken opponents, Teacher’s Union President Karen Lewis, refers to him as “a liar,” and speaks frankly to the camera on a number of her issues with Emanuel, which are echoed even by the city’s youngest activist, 9 year old Asean Jackson, on a mission to save his school from being closed down. (Emanuel, as one can imagine, has plenty of choice words of his own in return.)
Emanuel’s controlled presence on the series, at least as of its first four episodes, is rarely illuminating, but it does serve the basic purpose of giving a full picture of how the city functions, from citizens who are in a war zone, to a mayor who says he wants to help. The voices on both sides form a cacophony that is broken up on Chicagoland only by pauses to focus on things like the city’s burgeoning tech industry, the success of Lollapalooza, the philanthropic work of some of Chicago’s biggest stars, and the story of a promising young hip hop artist who calls himself Chance The Rapper. But a featured song of Chance’s has the lyrics, “everybody’s dying in the summer,” bringing the series back to one of its major foci: Chicago’s killing season.
In the midst of the chaos, Chicagoland is wise to promote two figures who are integral in keeping the story on a personal and relatable level throughout the dozens of arcs it follows: charismatic and dedicated police superintendent Garry McCarthy (who formerly was tasked with, and successful in, cleaning up crime in the Bronx and Newark), and the show’s break-out star, the tough, compelling and saintly Elizabeth Dozier, principal of Fenger High School, which has seen (under her tenure) one of the most dramatic turnarounds of any school in the nation.
As Chicagoland continues and broadens its scope, it loses some of the tightness and energy of its inaugural episode. But Dozier is the biggest reason to keep coming back. Her pursuit of hope, devotion, and promotion of peace regarding her students is incredible, and the stories told by those students and their families are Chicagoland‘s most authentic and emotional moments. The continued trials and triumphs of Dozier and Fenger are the heart of the series, and Chicagoland wisely spends most of its time in this orbit.
Despite the unfortunate monotone narration of Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Konkol, whose script is full of hard-boiled cliches (“must be something in the water,” when speaking of Chicago’s gangland past) and odd phrasing (“school closings and budget cuts: the ultimate buzzkill”), and time spent with Emanuel that is occasionally charming, but often feels like fodder for a campaign ad, Chicagoland has more pluses than minuses. Propelled by a pitch-perfect soundtrack, a swirling pace, and a perspective of Chicago that is lovingly filmed, Chicagoland presents an important and nationally-relevant story of the challenge to save a city undergoing a changing urban landscape. It’s a great move for CNN to invest in series like this, and while Chicagoland is not without its issues, the ultimate commitment on display by both those featured on the series, and by the network hosting it, is encouraging. There’s not just bleakness here. As McCarthy says with authenticity, “I’m trying to save the world. I’m trying to save Chicago. All of it.”
Watch a promo for Chicagoland below.