The Buzz: Showtime's 'The Chi' Is Off to a Promising Start

There’s an infectious energy that pulses through The Chi, Showtime’s latest drama. Set in the titular Chicago, the series navigates through a tangled web of characters who clash, intermingle, and attempt to carve out a piece of the city’s pie for themselves. Not groundbreaking material, as anyone who’s seen HBO’s The Wire or any ensemble film would attest, but The Chi has personality and vigor to spare, setting itself up as one of the potential sleeper hits of the new year.

As is customary in ensemble dramas, the net of characters we’re introduced to is wide and vast-- with key players including Coogie (Jahking Guillory), a wide-eyed teenager, Brandon (Jason Mitchell), an aspiring chef who can’t seem to shake the negative influence of his family, Kevin (Alex Hibbert), a lovestruck grade-schooler, and Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), a reluctant father figure. General as these descriptions may appear-- especially with regards to how each character knows one another-- to explicitly state them here would be to spoil the fun, as much of The Chi’s magic comes from how it does things as opposed to what it does. None of the narratives here are especially revelatory, but they take on a greater strength when strung together, manipulated, and presented at a slightly askew angle.

Much of this comes down to the acting. The sprawling cast assembled in the pilot episode (“Pilot”) is astonishing in a subdued, non-distracting manner, serving only to highlight the without bogging it down in vanity. As with the best ensembles, like the aforementioned The Wire, the actors here are constantly in service of the script, and it's exciting to see burgeoning talents like Mwine and Mitchell be given such emotionally rich material to play. This is especially true with the latter, who, after standout turns in Straight Outta Compton and Mudbound, continues to ascend towards A-list stardom. His portrayal of Brandon, the show’s unofficial lead, is upright without being preachy, ernest without being irritating, and suffice to say, the writers should continue to mine Mitchell’s talent further into the season.

Series creator Lena Waithe, perhaps most known for her work on the film Dear White People, clearly has a talent for weaving dramatic tapestries, and her characters arrive as both complex and innately likable-- a big plus when it comes to dramatic pilots. I was reminded in part of Joe Swanberg’s anthology series Easy, which also concerns itself with the daily lives of Chicagoans, but where Waithe (along with showrunner Elwood Reid and executive producer Common) distinguish themselves is in the social and political elements they choose to indulge in.

The pilot is clearly aware of the gun violence and shootings that have plagued the South Side of the city, and promptly sets up a parallel case within the framework of the story. These scenes are heartfelt, and, given their timeliness, admittedly effective, but they also lack distinctness in a medium that has wheeled out hundreds of police procedurals over the past few decades. Perhaps the case will increase in interest as the season progresses, but currently, there’s a notable distinction between the rich array of characters and the plodding, at times uninspired subplot involving a local shooting.

The jury (or at least, my vote) is still out on whether The Chi will become a network staple, but I can say with relative confidence that there is lots of rich entertainment to be found here. The cast is radiant, the tone strikes a tricky balance between heartfelt drama and airy comedy, and the soundtrack (with appearances from natives like Raury and Kanye West) is positively on point. My favorite instance of music so far has been the opening scene, where Coogie bikes down the street to the triumphant sounds of Chance The Rapper’s 2016 song “All We Got.” It's a moment that, with all it's infectious emotions-- hope, humility, thankfulness-- sets a tone that won’t soon go forgotten. Check out The Chi, you won’t be sorry.

Episodes of The Chi will air on Showtime on Sundays at 10 P.M. EST/PT