Chicagoland is a non-scripted, eight-part series covering our hometown Chicago. The series is produced by Robert Redford and Laura Michalchyshyn of Sundance Productions, and filmed by the award-winning Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin of BCTV. It explores the politics and policy of an evolving city trying to address complex issues in the spheres of education, crime, and inequality. In this Gate series, University of Chicago graduate student, Allen Linton II, will provide a review of each episode and a personal perspective on a controversial portrayal of Chicago. The original posts can be found on Allen’s blog. These posts have been adapted and edited for our readers.
We opened the episode with Chicago’s rich and fraught history: Emmitt Till’s funeral, race riots, the Haymarket riots, and the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Flash forward to today’s Chicago, a city characterized by a broken educational system, gun violence concentrated in the South and West sides of the city, and a burgeoning city center.
Chicagoland is over but its final episode left me with more questions than answers – not about the city but about the producers’ decisions to highlight some things over others. The episode, “City of the Future”, highlighted a few themes that have been emphasized over the course of the series, the major theme being that crime is a pervasive force in parts of the city. The series introduced a cast of underdeveloped characters to play second fiddle to the series’ stars: Liz Dozier, Garry McCarthy, and Rahm Emanuel. What made this episode arguably the best was it finally spoke to some of the bigger issues facing the city.
In this episode, former Chicago mayor Richard Daley explains that today’s greatest challenges are: the widening gap between rich and poor; the City’s pension crisis; the City’s racially-biased Stop and Frisk policy; the decline of organized labor and union power; and balancing the reality of public school closures with charter school growth. All of these issues appeared within a six-minute segment of a forty-seven minute episode of an eight-part docu-series.
The end of the series leaves two questions unanswered. First, why was this series was called Chicagoland? It’s really bothered me from the first episode and I don’t quite have a solid answer. Part of me wonders if Chicago possesses a dark imaginativeness among outsiders who only know of our particular style of politics, profane Mayor, and Wild West image reinforced with headlines like “Murder Capital of America.” It’s a city that people enjoy visiting provided they stay on the Magnificent Mile, take selfies in front of Cloud Gate (“The Bean,” as they call it), and visit the lovable losers at Wrigley Field. It’s also a city that produces looks of terror when you say, “I attend the University of Chicago.” Though the series doesn’t focus on its sprawling metropolis spokes from the city center, Chicagoland did support existing stereotypes of the city, portraying Chicago as a city plagued by challenges that is being supported by heroes.
The second question, and by far most frequent one I get, is did I like the show? The answer is “not especially.” It wouldn’t be a shock to say the series was maddeningly frustrating in its staging, focus on a few main characters, buildup of drama, lack of balance, and limited scope in issues discussed. As a Chicagoan, I see these complexities in my city that are foreign to outsiders. Though I didn’t enjoy the execution of the docu-series, because it leaned much more on “series” than “documentary,” the concept is brilliant. With the media inundated with coverage of national politics, which are currently synonymous with gridlock, a series looking at a major city is refreshing. Scaling down allows people to see the power of an executive who can accomplish his goals despite theoretical political opposition (a brief appearance by the Chicago Progressive Caucus of Aldermen in the finale was welcome but too little, too late).
I would love to see another attempt at a show like Chicagoland in a different city. As insistent as the show was to the notion that “Chicagoans don’t put up with the bull-“, viewers also can see through it. Total viewers dropped 48 percent from start to finish with the series finale matching an episode low. More diversity of topics, more depth into the bigger issues, and fewer diversions from the city would’ve helped the show. I didn’t enjoy this show but appreciated and enjoyed the idea of shining the spotlight on a city, my city, where things are happening for better or worse.
I’m glad it’s over but hope future directors and CNN learn from Chicagoland’s shortcomings to give the docu-series another try.