CNN's 'Chicagoland' Sets The Stage For A Promisingly Complicated Look At Chicago

By Tankboy in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 5, 2014 7:00PM

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Chicago is certainly experiencing a shining moment of being featured on mainstream television lately. And this is made even sweeter since the shows airing are, for the most part, actually filmed here. However despite this renaissance it's hard for Hollywood to get the city right so it's nice that the latest show profiling the city, Chicagoland, goes a long way to getting it right. The eight-part unscripted series—produced by Robert Redford, Laura Michalchyshyn, Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin—brings a documentary lens to events in Chicago over the last year or so, and instead of a simplistic snapshot, it appears Chicagoland will allow the series room to actually delve into complex issues.

This means some viewers will be thrown into an apoplectic rage when they see Rahm Emanuel presented as a big city mayor tasked with a complex set of issues plaguing his town and not simply a despot surfing on the shoulders of the little guy. It seems the mayor's office gave filmmakers extensive access to the mayor and his staff, so we get an unusually robust picture of the man and this includes some moments more telling than others. Of course we have scenes of Emanuel solidly sure of himself and it's interesting to see how calm he is when he believes in the path he's chosen. But then there's scene that starts off sweetly, showing the mayor's more tender side as he plays peek-a-boo through a door with some grade school children, but then launches into an awkwardly told story of how he lost part of one of his finger that's meant as cautionary tale but comes off as just weird.

The initial episode contains many threads we expect to see unspool throughout the series but the crux of the "story" here is focused on the school closings and the battles between City Hall, the threatened schools and the Chicago Teachers Union. We all know how this particular story shakes out and while Emanuel remains resolute there are still questions left unanswered, Chicago Teacher's Union president Karen Lewis continues to make it difficult to portray her as anything more than a blowhard more interested in Karen Lewis. Meanwhile, Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett seems more interested in making a political play with a few symbolic bones to keep three schools (interestedly two of those three are profiled here) threatened with closure open. Outside of the particularly gifted 3rd grader and public speaker Asean Johnson, no one comes out of this looking particularly good, and the danger to the students who will have to travel across gang lines to get to their new schools isn't underplayed.

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Fenger High School principal Liz Dozier is one of the central subjects of the 'Chicagoland' series.
In fact one of the other central story lines focuses on Fenger High School, brought to national prominence when 16-year-old Derrion Albert was beaten to death outside the school and later profiled on This American Life for the great strides the high school had made thanks to a government grant. The existence of this grant has allowed principal Elizabeth Dozier to make huge changes when it comes to conflict resolution, but the reality of the constant throb of violence in the surrounding neighborhoods that threatens her students, along with the threat of her entire infrastructure crumbling should funding disappear, shows how even reasonably well performing Chicago schools face huge uphill battles.

Much of the blame for this uphill battle lies on the shattered gang system and the fact that while Chicago was once a city with a few large gangs that had their own truces and wars, much of the city is now split between so many splinter gangs there is no center of power. And this is something Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy is tasked with solving, though outside of him dressing down some reporting officers in charge of trouble precincts, we don't get a clear view on how he plans to address this in the initial episode, so we're curious just how much transparency will be offered on his actual effect on the city's reduction in crime.

And why is Chicago getting this treatment? Why is it our city's story being told? At a screening for the premiere episode the producers explained they picked Chicago because it's dealing with many of the issues plaguing every other municipality across the nation. We guess that while our city is unique our situations are still relatable, so what better background to define a nation in flux?

While Chicagoland largely delivers its story with the understanding that a city's issues are filled with complexity and treats its audience like adults instead of reality television fans, this doesn't mean the series completely avoids the ridiculous. We're pleased they tapped local Pulitzer prize winning journalist Mark Konkol to delivers the narration but the script is unfortunately written, forcing it to be delivered with melodrama that makes Harrison Ford's VO in Bladerunner seem masterful and nuanced.

As residents of the city, we're intrigued to watch the rest of Chicagoland. We're glad it doesn't take sides or deliver arguments in absolutes, though others might grow annoyed, or even turned off, by that. As we were leaving the screening a woman came up to us and said, "I don't know who'll watch that, it's depressing." We were too stunned to answer, but as she walked out the theater we thought to ourselves, "Sorry everyone's life isn't like yours, lady. You may live in Chicago but you're obviously not looking at the world that surrounds you."

Chicagoland's 8-episode run airs Thursdays on CNN at 10 p.m. CT, beginning March 6. Later episodes will continue following these narratives while also bringing in other Chicago notables—including Chance the Rapper, Grant Achatz, Ricardo Muti, and Richard M. Daley. Oh, and of course Billy Dec, who appears to be showing people how to make teeny tiny hamburgers in the preview we saw.