Recent headlines from Chicago paint a very familiar picture. After having served since 1989, Mayor Richard M. Daley decided in September that he was not going to seek re-election this year. The mayoral election to be held next week has garnered much attention due to the candidacy of Rahm Emanuel, former chief of staff for President Obama, who will be running against five other candidates. Two weeks ago, there was a massive snowstorm that deposited 18 inches on the city. Hundreds of drivers were stuck for hours on Lake Shore Drive, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, which was closed down for all of the next day. Mayoral candidates were quick to arrange shoveling photo-ops, perhaps with former mayor Mike Bilandic in mind, who lost re-election largely due to a delayed and ineffective response to a blizzard in 1979.
With these two recent developments, the city has been living up to its acquired moniker. Though most take a literal approach to the origin of “The Windy City” nickname, others argue that it stems from all the politicians blowing hot air. Beyond wind, there have been some notable developments in the city here and there: mobsters, Michael Jordan, and Barack Obama, to name three. Yet throughout its history, Chicago has always been understated, perhaps taking a cue from the surrounding humility of the Midwest. As the so-called ‘second city,’ it is at once always looking towards New York yet completely divorced and isolated from it. Few people from outside the city seem to really know what goes on there. A New Yorker, upon leaving their native territory, might be confronted with the outsider’s fantasy of high society, Wall Street, skyscrapers, and taxicabs, whereas the Chicagoan, especially abroad, might be flashed with pantomimed guns. New York, where hundreds of TV shows and movies have taken place, has left much less to the imagination, while Chicago is left with a few iconic films to define it: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Blues Brothers come to mind. The Chicago of the last twenty years has tended to stay out of the limelight, unless it is cast as an oasis for bros through the filter of Vince Vaughn (The Dilemma), or functions as the setting for Gotham in The Dark Knight.
This is where The Chicago Code steps in, and with the city’s future at the ballot next week, it is rather timely. In its very first scenes and dialogue, the series establishes that the city will not simply be an accessory, but the core of the show. The first insights into the main characters of the show are how they relate to the city and its political culture. Police superintendent Theresa Colvin, the first female superintendent of the city, recounts how political corruption and organized crime caused her father’s hardware store to go bankrupt, and she is seen a few scenes later petitioning city hall for funding to fight corruption in front of an influential alderman. The inclusion of the political term alderman, the local designation for a city council member, is a nod to the city’s political system. In a city with clearly delineated neighborhoods and communities, the aldermen are scions of their wards. The etymology of the word, “elder man,” is not too far off given the numerous decades some aldermen have remained in power. The rampant corruption by aldermen that the show insinuates is not too intangible either. From 1972 to 2009, dozens of aldermen have been indicted on corruption-related charges. To put this in perspective, at any one time, 50 aldermen serve on the city council. They will all be elected next week to serve under the new mayor.
Even ignoring the requisite drama of a prime-time TV show, much of the plot of the pilot seemed eerily plausible. Construction bids, or any project involving contract bidding, have always been associated with corruption in the city. When a construction project is particularly slow-paced, a Chicagoan often will complain that Daley hired one of his relatives to do it. That a woman ends up dead after she suspects corruption is clearly an exaggeration. Overall, the show depicts politically corrupt politicians and organized crime as being heavily intertwined, which has some limited basis. A few Chicagoans theorize that the Daleys have ties to the Irish mafia, which is historically based in Bridgeport, where the Daleys grew up. In the second episode of the series, the Irish mafia scenes are shot just blocks from the current mayor’s childhood home.
More fundamentally, the series so far has been able to visually capture Chicago in a way that a show like E.R., which took place in Chicago but was primarily filmed in LA, did not. Already within two episodes, all sides of the city have been featured. Not only are there frequent shots of the city’s skyline, but the viewer also sees Wysocki, the main police officer, riding with his partner over the Chicago River through the heart of downtown. There are numerous Chicago sights, landmarks, and neighborhoods that have yet to be taken advantage of by popular media. The show makes use of the impoverished neighborhood of Austin, on the city’s West Side, as a nexus of crime. Here for example there is an elevated railway that arches over the street and continues for miles, which makes for an excellent setting for a police car chase. As this is a Chicago police drama, there is no doubt that the episodes will be returning to the shadowy undersides of the elevated trains for future scenes.
In trying to emphasize Chicago so emphatically, the show at times goes a little overboard. The Cub-Sox rivalry between Wysocki and his partner Evers is rather trite. Broad proclamations about Chicago occur frequently, often referring to the way things get done there. The city is portrayed as a place resistant to change. Though the city does have certain traditions, it has changed itself throughout history and today is one of the most dynamic metropolises in the country and the world. The effort that the actors have put in to attaining a “Chicago accent,” by which one implies a white, working-class Chicago accent, has been venerable. Interestingly enough, Jason Clarke, who plays Wysocki, has the most realistic accent, even though he is Australian. Jennifer Beals on the other hand, who is actually from Chicago, has one of the more overdone accents on the show.
As Chicago is slowly diminishing (the city lost 200,000 residents in the last decade), The Chicago Code latches on to what the city used to be. In reality, there are very few working-class Irish left in the city and in any case their presence in the city is far smaller than the show presents. The Chicago Police Department does represent one of the last vestiges of this culture, as numerous white ethnic groups have moved to the far fringes of the city limits in order to be able to remain employed by the police. The black neighborhoods the show depicts, such as Austin, have lost many of their residents who have moved to the South for better opportunities. The North Side of the city has gained residents, attracting affluent professionals moving into condos spurred by rapid gentrification.
Corruption is a more exciting theme for a TV show, and certainly very “Chicago.” Yet looking at the mayoral election, it is not corruption that is being discussed, but rather the very real issues of unemployment, underfunded schools, and general crime. If a city loses more than a thousand residents a month over ten years, something is wrong with it, but not necessarily corruption in its political system. In her first line of the show, Superintendent Colvin lets the viewer know how great her city is. But the city’s greatness is not innate; it is not simply hiding under a slimy film of corruption. Above all, Chicago works on some level, whether with corruption or not. The devious aldermen in the series and mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel both know this: the promise of the city is that if you get things done, you will at least get somewhere.