Marie lent me her Showtime password so I was able to finish watching The Chi this week. I saw the first three episodes as they aired, but chose not to keep paying for a subscription to the channel just to watch this one show. This is a common quandary these days. You watch one thing on an app, another on a channel, a third on your wristwatch, a fourth in a movie theater, a fifth on a network. It’s a neverending Tower of Babel to traverse just to find a good story or two.
Chicago is a city overflowing with stories. Yet, as far as the larger culture is concerned it’s still Al Capone/Wrigley Field/deep dish pizza/gang violence/political corruption and little else. On TV in particular, the representations of the city have been atrociously one-dimensional, from the late, unlamented The Chicago Code to the sick and seemingly endless Dick Wolf franchises. Shameless was fun for awhile but it never had any clue about the city and Boss had its moments but was cancelled before it really got its sealegs.
Movies haven’t done much better but there are occasional glimpses of the city I know. My friend, John McNaughton, has made several movies which show off the city and suburbs—particularly Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Normal Life, and Mad Dog and Glory, as has Andrew Davis in Stony Island, The Fugitive, et al. But recently, Spike Lee’s Chiraq made a grotesque and simplistic caricature of the city’s (and country’s) very real problems and dumb rom-coms like The Breakup present a place I’d never want to live in.
I’m reminded of The Breakup regularly because tourists and yuppies from outside Pilsen regularly poke their head into The Skylark, where I bartend, to confirm it’s the bar from that movie. Many TV shows and movies have been shot there over the years, but The Breakup is the one which the place is identified with more often than any other. I’ll watch anything shot in the city, particularly in places I’m intimately familiar with, so I was really happy to see the bar in an extended sequence in the final episode of The Chi’s first season.
What I love about the show, aside from the nuanced characters and compellingly complex storylines, is that its creators obviously know Chicago is more than El tracks, the Sears Tower, and the lakefront. Watching the show, I recognize many places presented with enough of their actual context intact that, though of course the geography and much else has been reedited to suit dramatic ends, I still see the city I know.
By using places like the Skylark and HaiSous on 18th Street as settings the show allows me to suspend my disbelief enough to follow along, while not questioning the underlying premises the way I do when I suffer through something like Chicago P.D.
It’s fun to see the way they redid the decor in the bar too. In the screen cap above, for instance, there are two dartboards which don’t usually hang on that wall. I regularly field calls asking if we have a dartboard or pool table, so seeing them on the show made me laugh. Seeing make-believe made in a real place which means something to me adds an extra level of resonance to a show that I enjoyed already. Hope they come back and shoot at the bar again next season.
Maybe they’ll put in a pool table this time.