In September, Lena Waithe became the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing. “Thanksgiving,” the Master of None episode she co-wrote with Aziz Ansari, followed Waithe’s Denise and Ansari’s Dev as they celebrate the holiday over two decades and Denise gradually comes out to her family. The episode was based on Waithe’s experiences, and you could tell: The episode was precise and funny, the progress in it halting and real. In her acceptance speech, she told the Emmys audience, “The things that make us different, those are our superpowers … Thank you for embracing a little Indian boy from South Carolina and a little queer black girl from the South Side of Chicago. We appreciate it more than you could ever know.”
On Sunday night, Waithe’s show about the South Side of Chicago, the sprawling drama The Chi, premieres on Showtime. Early in the first episode, a young man is found dead on a corner, and the tragic domino effect from this incident constitutes the series’ plot. It binds characters who might otherwise have nothing to do with one another, including Brandon (Straight Outta Compton’s Jason Mitchell), a young chef at a fashionable Chicago eatery trying to start a restaurant with his bougie girlfriend Jerrika (Tiffany Boone); Coogie (Jahking Guillory), his charismatic, oddball brother; Kevin (Moonlight’s Alex R. Hibbert), a young tween with a crush; Emmett (Jacob Latimore), a girl-crazy Romeo finally having to face fatherhood; and Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), a semi-homeless, semi-addict veteran who is a confidential informant.
The Chi is extremely ambitious in the most straightforward sense, a big, honking drama tackling violence, masculinity, race, racism, and policing that kills off its most appealing character in the first episode. Instead of a semi-autobiographical semi-comedy about a comedian named Lena who is slightly less successful than Lena Waithe—à la Louie, Better Things, and Master of None itself—The Chi has more of a connection to The Wire, another kaleidoscopic drama set in an aging metropolis in which a dysfunctional, punitive system catches up with even those who appear to have escaped. But The Chi arrives more than a decade after The Wire did, and the contours of its ambition and scope are recognizable. The meat of the story, a group of black men caught up in senseless, endemic violence, feels familiar, if with some very good acting, particularly from Mitchell. It’s the stories and the characters on the margins that feel fresh.
Kevin, for example, is a witness to a crime—but he is also, adorably, in the throes of a middle-school crush that compels him to audition for the school play, The Wiz. He’s alternately embarrassed and gutsy, a boy and a little man. He talks precociously and profanely with his friends in the halls, but when he goes to an unchaperoned tween house party, it’s as tame as any parent could ever hope. Emmett is a girl-crazy sneakerhead, but there’s something almost sweet about his one-track mind, which has kept him out of other kinds of trouble. He’s struggling with fatherhood, but he’s still primarily a son. In one nice scene he curls up with his head on his mom’s lap and apologizes “for everything.”
The twists and turns of the major plot are not particularly surprising, but there are a number of simple reversals that are: the man deciding not to buy a gun, the guy too hesitant to become a drug dealer. I’ve only seen the four episodes sent out to critics, but The Chi does not seem as philosophically devoted to tragedy as did The Wire. It seems possible that some of these characters are fated to survive, even thrive. In one sequence, Brandon, distraught and grieving, shows up for a high-pressure day at work. Experience tells us that he’s about to blow it, as personal chaos brims over into his professional life, where no one will cut him a break. Instead, he takes a sirloin in his hand and authoritatively salts it. Work is the distraction that he needs.
In a memorable scene about police entitlement and the absurdity of foodie culture, Brandon gets thrown on the hood of a car by bullying cops at a particularly fraught moment. They ask him where he’s coming from, and he names the trendy Chicago restaurant where he works. One of the cops has been trying to get a reservation there. Brandon, his voice shaky, calls work and gets the officer a table, carrying out a command like it’s a favor. The cops let him go, and he walks down the street, laughing, crying, and trembling at an experience that was terrifying, abusive, and also ridiculous.
Unexpectedly, given that this is Waithe’s show, The Chi has no central female characters, just many supporting ones. None of these parts are thankless, but they are small. Almost every time a woman appears on screen, she conjures another show in which she could be the protagonist. There’s the husky tween girl with a bullying crush on Kevin, as well as his mother, who is in a romantic relationship, shown in passing, that already is another TV show. There’s Ronnie’s piss-and-vinegar grandmother and Brandon and Coogie’s mother, Laverne, played by The Wire’s Sonja Sohn, who appears in the first episode drunk and nasty but is allowed to mellow into a more complicated person, as is her boyfriend, who comes across as a jerk but is actually a solid guy who doesn’t want anyone to eat his yogurt out of the fridge. As these characters move closer to the center of the story, The Chi gets better—less like something we’ve seen before, and more like itself.
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