David Phillips asks Emmy voters to consider Showtime’s The Chi
When Showtime’s The Chi premiered in January, the expectations were high. A show from the ever-hot Lena Waithe centered on the turbulent city of Chicago and featuring a large ensemble, many were expecting a Chi-Town version of The Wire.
That comparison was a bit lazy though. While the show does take place in an urban area, begins with a crime, and showcases dealers, cops, and the communities caught between the two, it’s tone is more hopeful and buoyant. That’s not to say awful things don’t happen. They certainly do. It’s more that the mixture of light and shade is more evenly balanced than on The Wire. I would argue that in some ways The Chi is closer to a different David Simon show, Treme.
Like that New Orleans based series, The Chi leans heavily not just on the inherent dangers of the city it resides in, but also on the music and food culture.
There’s a great scene early in the season where shots break out nearby a raucous block party. The music stops. People duck and consider running. Then the DJ takes the mic and insists that no gunfire is going to ruin their night. Not on that evening.
That is the spirit of The Chi in one brief, almost throwaway moment. Grief and danger are well represented, but so is perseverance and joy.
It is a wonderfully humane show and deserving of consideration for Best Drama, as well as the following categories:
Best Actor: Jason Mitchell.
The Chi may be an ensemble, but Jason Mitchell is the anchor. It is the death of his younger brother that drives the show. As a gifted cook working his way up a high-toned restaurant, Mitchell’s Brandon struggles to hold his career, his relationship, and his freedom together as he manages both grief and a desire for revenge. After breaking through as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton and garnering Oscar buzz for Mudbound, the endlessly charismatic actor furthers his bona fides here. Even when Brandon is making bad decisions, you root for him. You sense his inherent decency fighting against his environment. This guy could make it you think, if only he can negotiate the obstacles in his path. One of them being his own judgment.
Best Supporting Actress: Sonja Sohn
Sohn’s casting in The Chi probably amped up The Wire comparisons. Her role as Baltimore office Kima Griggs on that seminal program is much different than her part on The Chi. As Brandon’s grief-stricken mother Laverne, she is temperamental and inconsistent. Brittle even. But in the same way most people are made up of many different parts, she can be loving and forceful too. Her dark brown eyes not only hold deep pools of sorrow, but great reserves of strength too. Her relationship with Brandon is equal parts aggravation and affection. It feels real. As does every word that exits Sohn’s mouth. She seems incapable of a false step.
Best Supporting Actor: Steven Williams
The veteran journeyman actor who has been in everything from The Blues Brothers to 21 Jump Street and the X-Files gets the role of a lifetime as the old head local crime boss returning to the neighborhood to lay claim to that which he left behind. The wiry Williams plays Quentin Dickinson as silver-tongued charmer who offers up favors, but they aren’t for free. Even when carrying on about days gone by with family and old friends, Williams seems dangerous. As if a single wrong word at the wrong time will change the weather from bright to dark with nothing more than the tightening of his glare. It’s far too simple to describe Dickinson as the bad guy. Yes, he’s trouble alright, but there’s something of a philosopher in him. He’s capable of kindness and good advice. It’s just that his switch is always leaning to the off side. The one that turns out the lights.
Writing: Lena Waithe
As creator and primary writer, the potential Waithe showed onscreen and as a writer on Master Of None comes to full fruition here. There is not a single character who is all good or bad. Everyone is mixed with frailties and strengths. Good intentions and bad decisions. As heavy as The Chi can occasionally be, it is often quite funny. You will smile a lot while watching The Chi. Just not for all that long. Life comes not only fast in The Chi, but often painfully hard. There are so many grace notes found in-between though. The Chi feels like life. Which is maybe the best praise I can give it.