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Some Fear 'The Wire' Will Overshadow Showtime's 'The Chi'


Showtime's newest drama "The Chi" offers a close-up look at violence in a poor neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. The show debuts this Sunday, but NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says it is a story that TV should have tackled a long time ago. And a warning - you'll hear some explicit language over the next few minutes.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: As a child in nearby Gary, Ind., I've waited years for a TV show or movie to intimately explore Chicago's poor, mostly black South Side neighborhoods like "The Wire" did for West Baltimore and "Boyz N The Hood" did for South Central LA. And I so wanted "The Chi" to be that show in this moment, but the first four episodes I saw didn't quite hit the mark. The action starts with Coogie Johnson, a fresh-faced 16-year-old with huge hair. He's childlike enough to feed a stray dog but savvy enough to barter with the owner of the local bodega for a lower price on his snack.


AMRO SALAMA: (As Habib) Dollar for the pop, $1.75 for the jerky.

JAHKING GUILLORY: (As Coogie) Wait. How much the pop cost?

SALAMA: (As Habib) A dollar.

GUILLORY: (As Coogie) How much it cost you - wholesale?

SALAMA: (As Habib) Seventeen cents.

GUILLORY: (As Coogie) OK, so I give you a quarter. That's like 8 cents profit, man. How you lose on that?

SALAMA: (As Habib) Everybody else pay a dollar.

GUILLORY: (As Coogie) Habib - listen, man. Check this out. I give you a quarter for the pop and I pay full price for the jerky and we good, man.

SALAMA: (As Habib) How we good?

GUILLORY: (As Coogie) 'Cause you make your money.

DEGGANS: Eventually, Coogie gets his way. This is what "The Chi" does best - humanize people in a place most of us only know from headlines and political rhetoric. Coogie was arrested because he was seen near a murder scene. This leads to a fight between Coogie's older brother, his girlfriend and Coogie's abusive mom played by "The Wire" alum Sonja Sohn.


SONJA SOHN: (As Laverne) Coogie in jail. I need you to give me a ride down to the police station.

TIFFANY BOONE: (As Jerrika) Wait. What happened?

SOHN: (As Laverne) Listen here, girl. Don't be getting your nose all up in my [expletive] business, all right? It's bad enough I got to come all the way up here to see my son.

JASON MITCHELL: (As Brandon) Why do you have to talk to her like that? Why is it a thing?

SOHN: (As Laverne) I'll talk to her any [expletive] way I please.

DEGGANS: Soon, there's another murder in the neighborhood. The characters are caught in a swirl of revenge, violence and regret as people avoid the police and seek justice on their own. But that's only part of the story in "The Chi," which also features elementary school kids. We mostly see a trio of boys who hang together - Papa, Jake and Kevin, who's played by Alex Hibbert from the Oscar-winning film "Moonlight." Here, the three kids explain their biggest challenge in school. Kevin speaks first.


ALEX HIBBERT: (As Kevin) The worst thing about school is getting there.

MICHAEL EPPS: (As Jake) You got to know who run what block, what crew is beefing with your crew. You might have to walk three or four blocks out of your way just to avoid the ops.

SHAMON BROWN JR.: (As Papa) That's why I'm glad I got the gift of the gab, so I could talk my way out of any situation.

EPPS: (As Jake) Is that what you did that time you peed on yourself after the boy jumped...

DEGGANS: "The Chi" has an impressive pedigree. Chicago native Lena Waithe, who became the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing a "Master Of None" last year, created the show. Oscar-winning rapper Common, also from the Windy City, serves as an executive producer. But this is a sprawling tale which takes a long time to get where it's going.

I fear this Showtime series may be a victim of what I call Netflix syndrome, where many of today's high-profile series take way too much time to set up stories. It's also overshadowed by stories we've seen before, most notably "The Wire." HBO's series made history a decade ago depicting an all-black neighborhood crippled by poverty and crime struggling with violence from an out of control illegal drug trade.

"The Chi" needs to tell a story that stands apart from those familiar themes, and so far, I haven't quite seen it. Television is waiting for a story that turns the South Side's unique struggle into groundbreaking pop culture poetry, but "The Chi" will have to raise its game a bit more to pull that off. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 4, 2018 at 12:00 AM EST
The audio of this story describes Papa, Jake and Kevin as elementary school students. They're actually eighth-graders, but in Chicago, kindergarten through eighth grade is referred to as elementary school.