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.
CNN’s CHICAGOLAND (written in all caps because this is a big deal), is an eight episode “original series” about the struggle within the capital of America’s heartland. The first episode was released last Thursday, March 6 and prompted me to revive my blogging career to address the dialogue and conversation surrounding this series. In this first post covering the first episode, I will address two questions I get all the time regarding the new show: (1) Why are you watching this and (2) what do you think of its portrayal of the city?
The first question is easy to answer and a bit shallow for some to understand: I am watching because I care about how my city is portrayed to the world. Everywhere I go and everywhere I have been, domestic (Los Angeles, Boston, St. Louis, Denver, etc.) and abroad (Istanbul, London, Johannesburg), “Chicago” is met with looks of dire concern. Questions immediately center on the city’s reputation as the murder capital of America. While references to Al Capone may make my foreign colleagues seem dated, their reactions affirm the idea that violence, lawlessness, and graft reign supreme in my hometown. Domestically, national coverage of Chicago is also associated with violence both physical (shootings) and verbal (our mayor’s anger at someone or something). This series is a primetime window into the city and will, for better or worse, that shapes the national perception of Chicago. I watch Chicagoland because perception matters. I graduated from a Chicago Public School, lived through the teachers’ strike, and felt the subtle appreciation of winter which puts a momentary freeze on gun violence. Seeing what is presented through the lens of a primetime camera allows me to view what the “most accurate” picture of Chicago looks like and to fill in the blanks that an hour long show or brief newscast cannot portray. I emphasize that this portrayal might not be “right,” it is simply accurate in the sense of perception. Chicagoland stays true to framing a media perception of Chicago and this is what peaks my curiosity as a viewer.
Now to question two: How do I feel about Chicagoland’s portrayal of Chicago?
After episode one, “New Boss” the general buzz surrounding the show is mixed. I thought the show did a nice job of sketching out the dire straits Chicago faces including education, public safety, and tough (rough?) politics. One of the most frustrating aspects is the docuseries flair with its activation and development of various characters: “New Boss” Rahm Emanuel takes on the tough decisions as the Mayor and executive; Liz Dozier, the hero of the kids, relies on her toughness and love to revive a struggling school; Karen Lewis, Emanuel’s rival who actually mirrors his personal, combative characteristics, leads the rebels for the Chicago Teachers Union; Garry McCarthy serves the thankless job as police chief and has the task of saving Chicago from the constant threat of violence. These people exist with worthy stories and perspectives and they can continue to exist without the dramatization of their characters which exists in this documentary. While I don’t claim to understand the pulse of modern day TV marketing, as a viewer I either want an investigative, exploratory documentary, or a drama hosted on an entertainment network, but not a conflation of the two. Doing both at the same time hurts the product.
Many criticized the episode as being very favorable to Mayor Emanuel (perhaps motivated by Robert Redford’s stated appreciation of the mayor). Perhaps my own experiences with the city and the mayor have influenced my perception,, but I actually thought the depiction of Rahm was accurate. Amid an episode filled with anger, tears, marches, and passion Rahm appeared calm, deliberate, and decisive. And frankly, from the White House to City Hall, that has always seemed to be his modus operandi. His dramatic eye-roll when confronted with the idea of losing the “teachers strike” said it all: I am trying to fix things, and critics and pain are unfortunate side-effects of the process. To be fair, I guess, the first episode is called “New Boss” a notion taken from the idea of Daley as “Boss” of Chicago and rightfully focuses on the new head honcho in charge. If anything I expected a portrayal of Rahm to focus on him as a callous, heartless, and distant leader of the Chicagoans he is trying to help. The documentary does not do this, but rather provides a more positive interpretation, one that I don’t find inaccurate.
The other “new bosses,” Liz Dozier, principal at Fenger High School, and Garry McCarthy, police superintendent , looked the best. With all respect to the work Dozier is doing, she is probably the easiest type of boss to cast in a positive light. She is tough when needed, but emits a genuine care for her students whether they are organizing a peace march or discussing the use of “the F-bomb.” McCarthy also came across as a surprisingly positively cast character as he moves from threats of being fired by angry aldermen to managing his force to cause sharp reductions in crime throughout 2013. On the other end of the spectrum, I didn’t like the camera’s treatment of Karen Lewis. Throughout her tenure, I have not especially connect with her boisterous tactics (though she may be the best person to negotiate with the bullheaded “Rahmbo”), but the grainy video of rallies and interviews was way too heavy handed for me. I hope to see more of her in the coming episodes and I hope the documentary works to provide a more objective portrayal of her.
So in summary: I thought Chicagoland adequately showed the issues but didn’t exactly provide a well-rounded stance on how things were handled in the city. On a personal level, this first episode reminded me of why I like Rahm Emanuel, but why my feelings are increasingly mixed as we witness the fallout following his solutions. The mayor doesn’t shy away from politically difficult decisions, something absent in modern American politics (and something that’s probably needed in a city like Chicago). His flaw, however, is his overreliance on outcomes. Yes, we evaluate politicians on outcomes but the means to the end do matter. And they always will matter. You can’t get credit for something that works if you alienate people from the beginning (e.g. the Red Line Reconstruction).
As I look forward to episode two, I hope the characterizations of all the “new bosses” will continue to flesh out the complexities of this city and its people and its new leaders. I fear, however, that a continued docudrama tone may take away from its objectivity and insight.
I can’t wait for episode two!
Table of Contents: A Chicagoan Reviews Chicagoland
1: Episode 1
2: Episode 2
3: Episode 3
4: Episode 4
5: Episode 5
6: Episode 6