Black SUVs glint in the sunlight, tall skyscrapers provide the most friendly of bland backdrops, and a woman with a faint Chicago accent speaks in platitudes about the greatness of Chicago and the “history behind it we’ve never been able to escape.”
The good guys are riding in the SUVs; the bad guys are taking bribes and killing children. The superheroes–the well-worn tropes, the marvels of so many generations–have landed in Chicago. A minute into the pilot episode of The Chicago Code, and you can bet that nothing you haven’t already heard about Chicago will ever make it onto the program.
But in an America that has outgrown real Marvels, the superhero has taken on a new form. Instead of arachno-sapiens we look for more believable heroes–the people we actually look to for protection: the police. This trend is not new, as the FBI, the CIA, the LAPD, the NYPD–even 24’s fictional CTU–have given us guardian angels, conjured up in the comfort of our own imaginations. While such shows have at times broached moral ambiguity, they leave no doubt of the face of the greater good fighting against unquestionably evil forces. It is surprising, then, that it has taken so long for a show to be made about the Chicago Police, considering Chicago’s historical abundance of grand tales filled with twisted, grandiose crooks and the loyal stewards of the law who fought them.
However, the Chicago Code has at last been made, and already, half a dozen episodes in to the first season, gained the 9/8c slot on FOX and a considerable fan base, despite a weak ad campaign. But the show has also left many wondering whether the Chicago Police are really the superheroes in the SUVs, and why they should be portrayed as such if they are not. As a program that purports on its website to “follow the Windy City’s most powerful and respected cops” weaving at break-neck speed through offices, cars, alleys and rundown houses, it’s true that the show follows the cops outside the Loop to locations around the city. Indeed, the show has been much lauded for its use of Chicago itself as a character. Yet the slick and shiny Chicago we are given isn’t far off from, say, Michael Bay’s treatment of the metropolis in the upcoming “Transformers 3,” ignoring the realities of the city and its inhabitants.
A word with Dennis O’Connor, a Sergeant from the Chicago Narcotics team, indicates how blatantly false the Chicago Code seems to anyone who has lived the part. “The show is much more melodramatic than real life,” he said. “For example, it’s against departmental policy in Chicago to have car chases now, we only do them in the most serious of cases.” In the real Chicago, a car chase request has to be approved by a supervisor before it can go ahead. “The Chicago Code just shows the highlights of being a police officer,” said Mr. O’Connor. “We do have exciting chases sometimes. My scariest one was probably one we did from West Rogers Park to O’Hare at 2:30 in the morning, but these don’t happen every day.”
This “highlighting” extends to the relationships within Chicago’s institutions of law enforcement: the Chicago Code creates intrigue where there is none. According to O’Connor, Ryan’s portrayal of pandemic corruption running riot in the bodies of mean-fisted millionaires with large backsides in leather seating, is an unnecessary and exaggerated stereotype. There is no need for a superhero to save Chicago from an evil alderman, such as Mr. Gibbons in the show, because there are many aldermen in Chicago–none with nearly as much power as Gibbons. “We all want the same thing,” said O’Connor.
While the show seeks to create a singular vision of crime in Chicago, the narrative simply doesn’t match up to reality. The writers attempt to shore up the dubious actions of Chicago’s criminal organizations and link them to the corrupt alderman’s office, but this tidy narrative proves dissatisfying. In fact, Chicago’s criminal activity has more mundane, though persistent, causes than simply a corrupt city official controlling the entire city’s underworld. A member of the Chicago Police’s Bureau of Administrative Services who wishes to remain anonymous, offered more realistic insights about the hungry, doped-up criminals that populate America’s third largest city. “A lot of violent crime is associated with drugs,” he said. “There’s a strong correlation between the use of hand guns and drug abuse.”
The reason for this is twofold. First, there is the plight of users. “There’s a lot of misguidance in the sentencing process. Despite the overcrowding of prisons, having a $10 bag of crack is treated like a huge felony. The culprit cannot participate in society. He can’t vote, he can’t get loans for college,” says the source. Crime isn’t a means of grabbing political power; it’s the only way some know how to get by. “The state spends money on punishment rather than rehabilitation,” continued the officer. “How else is an unemployable felon to fund a habit that no one is helping him flee from?”
Second, there are the gangs that dominate the South Side drug scene. “Ever since the high rise projects were torn down [since the implementation of Mayor Daley’s ‘Plan for Transformation’], the South Side has seen a lot of drug related violence,” the officer said. “Small drug businesses have moved to neighborhoods where they establish cultures of fear in order to claim territory,” and the ensuing land grabbing can have dreadfully gory consequences. But ugly syringes and tired users hardly feature at all amongst the tough mean bad guys in the series that claims to show us the “Chicago Way.”
The treatment of gang violence by real police presents another departure from the image of ever-present heroes that populate comics. “We typically don’t participate in how gangs do business,” our source said. “If one gang does something to another and there’s a risk of retaliation, we have policemen saturate the hot area but they try and stay uninvolved.” This is not the story that the Chicago Code tells. Inter-gang rivalry is non-existent in the show, failing to address the zip code segregation in Chicago. The facts that, as our source notes, “certain areas in the South and West sides are completely excluded from the city’s economic system” or that Englewood has the highest population of mentally ill people in Chicago (which may correlate to its high incidence of crime), is not an issue in this program that purports a unified code, or grand narrative, for all of Chicago, as opposed to the layers of codes that criss-cross neighborhoods.
The tradition of portraying the city as a cohesive industrialized metropolis is one that dates back to the Chicago of steel mills and stockyards. And it is this portrayal that the Chicago Code uses, pumping $25 million into Chicago’s economy in the process. It seems like everyone should be happy–more people attracted to one of the only two large cities in America whose population is declining, jobs for all, tourists attracted, Chicago back on the city radar–so what is it that tickles the conscience? That systemic poverty is not addressed, that drugs and guns abound, and people are being deluded into thinking that the bad guy is a shadowy alderman whose oily fingers have Chicago in their grip, and the good guy is the police detective shouting “Great Scott!” from somewhere atop his moral high ground. But what’s true is important too, and when reality hits us, we’ll have to put the superheroes away.