A relevant, timely and distinctive coming-of-age story following a half dozen interrelated characters in the South Side of Chicago. The story centers on Brandon, an ambitious and confident young man who dreams about opening a restaurant of his own someday, but is conflicted between the promise of a new life and his responsibility to his mother and teenage brother back in the South Side.
Yes, Famuyiwa establishes his location, and yes, that location is important. Chicago is a political hotbed; a talking point thrown out time and time again to illustrate what’s going wrong with gangs, police, and everyone caught in between. The scene’s ending relates to that, setting in motion the series’ main narrative. It’s definitely a critical juncture for the show overall, but those heartening, wordless opening shots end up mattering as much as anything else.
But the significance of this scene — which takes a turn dramatic enough to make viewers forget the beauty of what came before — doesn’t hit home until the episode’s end. It’s your first clue there’s more to “The Chi” than initially meets the eye.
And that’s because “The Chi” doesn’t treat its characters as a means to an end. For all the issues that need to be addressed in Chicago (and the state of Illinois), “The Chi” targets big topics by prioritizing the day-to-day lives of its residents. Coogie’s bike ride isn’t meant to cast the city in a negative light or hold greater metaphorical value (like the opening scene of “The Wire,” which ends on the now iconic answer, “It’s America, man.”) It’s telling you who Coogie is, and who he is means quite a bit.
Hell, the full weight of the deceptively simple introduction won’t set in until the season (and maybe even the series) comes to a close. That, by itself, makes for exciting television, but there’s plenty to relish in the first four episodes. “The Chi” quickly proves itself adept at stringing together long- and short-term payoffs. To slightly spoil the premise, the series circles around a young man’s murder. Coogie finds his body and becomes a person of interest to the police, despite his innocence. From there, we’re introduced to a slew of loosely connected residents.
Brandon (Jason Mitchell, in an award-worthy turn) is Coogie’s older brother and an aspiring chef who works in an up-and-coming restaurant. He lives with his whip-smart and encouraging girlfriend, Jerrika (Tiffany Boone), and does his best to keep Coogie on the right track (and away from his regularly drunk mother, played by Sonja Sohn). An even younger generation is seen mainly through the eyes of Kevin (Alex Hibbert, again earning the spotlight he first got for “Moonlight”), a grade schooler in love, and Emmett (Jacob Latimore), a teen who’s forced into a new life after his playboy lifestyle gets the best of him.
His mother is Jada (Yolonda Ross), who’s giving her son some much needed tough love when she’s not working as an in-house nurse for Ronnie’s grandma. Who’s Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), you ask? Well, he’s the murdered kid’s father figure, and he’s still very much in love with the boy’s mother, Tracy (Tai Davis), who wants him to find out what happened to “their” son.
She expects Ronnie to take care of it because she doesn’t trust the cops — and she’s not alone. When confronted with a problem typically meant for the police, most of these characters decide it’s best if they handle things themselves. “The cops aren’t going to do shit!” is a common sentiment, but its motivation is largely understood from subtle context within the show (and an onslaught of headlines and news stories in the real-world). The few cops we get to know onscreen aren’t evil men. One lesser character might be immorally motivated, but the main law enforcement representative is honestly trying to do what’s right. Played by Armando Riesco, Detective Rick Cruz isn’t meant to shoulder all the blame; he’s there to put a face to the issues, just like everyone else.
As episodes roll forward, the question of who killed the young Chicagoan may slip from viewers’ minds — which is a good thing; there’s more to think about than just a murder mystery. Lena Waithe, Common (an executive producer who also starts his guest star arc in Episode 4), and showrunner Elwood Reid are trying to build an intimate understanding of a city’s citizens instead of throwing stones at the system around them.