Cops and Cons

By Franklin, Nancy | The New Yorker, March 21, 2011 | Go to article overview

Cops and Cons


Franklin, Nancy, The New Yorker


"The Chicago Code," a police drama that debuted on Fox in February, was created by Shawn Ryan, who grew up near Chicago, in Rockford, Illinois. Ryan also created the great police drama "The Shield," which ran on FX for seven years and was set in the seedy, crime-ridden areas of Los Angeles. That show's central character, Vic Mackey (played by Michael Chiklis), was a corrupt cop, and though viewers may have been clear in their minds that they were not Mackeys themselves, watching the show implicated them, on some level, in his crimes. Sometimes Mackey's tactics seemed justified, and we were forced to consider the morality of breaking the law in order to enforce it. That put us in an unpretty position. And there we stayed. "The Shield" 's setting reflected our purgatorial state; it was confined to the parts of Los Angeles that tourists rarely see--the parts that nobody aspires to live in, where there's little hope of escaping the endless swirl of crime and violence.

In "The Chicago Code," on the other hand, we roam the city with cops (the show's original title was "Ride-Along"), seeing it as a whole, the way it wants to be seen. Chicago comes across here as a great American metropolis, a shining city on a hill, whose citizens love it fiercely--even though that hill could be higher and is notoriously prone to crumbling. Ryan seems to get Chicago, but, possibly because he grew up near it and not in it, he pushes the city's myths a little too hard. The characters wear their Chicago-ness like a brocaded cape, flourishing it and calling our attention to it, as if it didn't speak for itself. Perhaps this insistence is Ryan's way of illustrating a second-city mentality, but what hits our ears, both in voice-overs and in the characters' comments, is a barrage of very familiar metaphors. Then again, all big cities are self-conscious and demanding of our attention; they need us in order to figure out what they should be, just as we need them to figure out who we are.

Ryan's gift for complexity--his ability to gnaw at your conscience while riveting you to the action--is still evident here. Detective Jarek Wysocki (Jason Clarke) is nominally the main character in the show, but the weight is shared equally among Wysocki; his boss, Teresa Colvin (Jennifer Beals), who is the city's police superintendent; and a powerful, corrupt alderman, Ronin Gibbons (Delroy Lindo). These three form a triangle, with Wysocki and Colvin close allies and Gibbons at a point far away--above, beyond, and under the law. At the start of the series, Colvin, who has been in the job for only six months, energetically sets out to put an end to Gibbons's criminality and recruits Wysocki, an old partner of hers, as her deputy, giving him broad authority to use his judgment and bypass the ordinary chain of command. Bringing Gibbons down won't be easy, she knows: he's held his office for twenty-five years, and, depending on whom you ask, he's either the second most powerful man in Chicago or the most powerful. (The city's mayor appears to be irrelevant here; in the first five episodes, there are only a couple of passing references to him or her.) But for Colvin the battle is personal: she tells us in a voice-over that her father, a shopkeeper, "had to pay off city inspectors for building-code examinations, paid off precinct captains to get the trash collected on time, paid off thugs for protection, until finally there wasn't any money left. It broke my father's heart and cost my parents their marriage."

Wysocki is sort of a cop times two--his brother was on the force and was killed on the job, leaving Jarek to fill his shoes as guardian and mentor to his daughter, Vonda (Devin Kelley), who is now a beat cop herself. Sitting in church next to a nun, Wysocki prays aloud that he will "find my brother's killer, and, Lord, when I find him make my aim true that I may take his life." Finishing the prayer with an "Amen," he crosses himself. We've seen moments like this in other TV shows, but the nice, tiny tweak here is that the disapproval on the nun's face as she overhears Wysocki's wish is almost imperceptible, as if she knew that God wasn't going to win this argument and shouldn't even bother to try. …

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