‘The Chi’ Season 2 Returns to the Streets of Chicago’s South Side

After a highly acclaimed first season, Showtime’s “The Chi” returns to its cast of characters struggling and surviving in Chicago’s south side. Told with a searing realism and powerful human touch, this remains one of those special shows that has the feel of lives being experienced. As life continues people grow, evolve or face new obstacles. Such is the reality of the world of “The Chi,” as loose ends from the last season turn into bigger dramatic threads.

Picking up from last season, we catch up with every major character as they persevere. Brandon (Jason Mitchell) is working hard at getting his food truck business up and running, but being an entrepreneur in the south side is not easy feat, and once certain people know you’re making a lot of money, you become a target. Brandon’s girlfriend Jerrika (Tiffany Boone) is also trying to climb up the ladder as a real estate agent, but she soon has to face the urgent question of gentrification, and if she is willing to help the upper class push the poor out of affordable housing. Left without a home is Emmett (Jacob Latimore), who finds himself on the street after his mother, Jada (Yolonda Ross) announces she’s moving somewhere else. Now the ladies’ man has no bed to crash in. Meanwhile behind bars Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) begins serving time for the murder of Coogie Johnson. It seems like at first prison is helping him hold back the raging alcoholism that has caused him so much grief, but an opportunity presents itself to get free. Out in the streets rising gang leader Reg (Barton Fitzpatrick) gets a rude awakening from an even more powerful crime lord, who demands a specific payment every month. We also catch up with the show’s teen trio, Kevin (Alex R. Hibbert), Papa (Shamon Brown Jr.) and Jake (Michael Epps), who face the trials of school, homework and trying to get by in a neighborhood where life can take dramatic turns.

The beauty of “The Chi” is the subtle way in which its main storylines advance while allowing the characters to grow with a potent realism. The first season had a tone comparable to the films of Spike Lee or the Hughes Brothers. In the urban landscape of “The Chi” nothing is assured and everyone has to be on their toes to make rent, find a better job or prove themselves in an unforgiving social arena. In another show, Brandon would be the typical hero who finally makes it big after working so hard and proving his talent, but in the season premiere just as the food truck business is going great, he gets mugged and the truck is stolen. Jerrika, already being pressured by her upper class parents to find a better partner than the chef Brandon, also comes close to success, but her first big client is a building owner glad to kick out the poor. The writing here takes on an insightful, socially aware tone. The landlord happens to be black, and so Jerrika is forced to not only deal with being an agent of gentrification, but with the reality that every community has people willing to turn their backs for a profit. Like few recent shows, “The Chi” captures working class African-American life with an intelligence that is both refreshing and provocative.

Other storylines this season develop in ways that allow us to understand the characters much better, while raising the stakes. Each episode features flashbacks to the early 2000s, when Ronnie returned from Iraq with hopes of becoming a police officer. But when that opportunity closes he turns to drinking, and the roots of his downward spiral become evident. In the underbelly of society lack of work fuels a lack of dignity, and Ronnie goes from self-assured to self-destructive. In the present he makes the bold decision to rescind his guilty plea for Coogie’s death, knowing full well he will face possibly violent consequences in the neighborhood if he returns. But everyone has someone to answer to in this world, and Reg also discovers this when a top crime boss calls him over to his fancy apartment, demanding cash every month. In this season Reg’s cocky attitude is brought down to earth and he becomes more stressed, insecure and impatient with his crew.

Interestingly enough, the most engaging storyline this season might just be Emmett. Last season he was introduced to us as the stereotypical Don Juan who gets several girls pregnant but remains a dependent in his own home. But now, thrown into the street, he has to finally figure it all out for himself. He tries to work at a restaurant, but ends up (literally) setting it on fire. He tries to help Brandon with the food truck and crashes at the house of his father, Darnell (Rolando Boyce), who has his own, younger kids to take care of. At first Darnell seems like the perfect example of maturity, but when he goes to visit Jada and demand she start sending him money to cover for Emmett, we see a little of where Emmett gets his own behavior from. Many of us are followed by the roots of our family tree, in ways we don’t even notice.

Great comic relief comes from the sections involving Kevin, Papa and Jake. As always Papa is there to share the homegrown wisdom of his mom, Kevin struggles with trying to be a good kid while not snitching and Jake has to go home and deal with being Reg’s younger brother. There’s even a specific, possible teen romance involving Kevin that seems to take shape, but spoiling it would ruin the fun of watching it unfold. By the fifth episode the show puts Kevin in a truly intense position as Ronnie taking back his confession means Kevin might have to testify in court over what he saw regarding Coogie’s death.

“The Chi” makes us want to root for nearly everyone involved, even characters like Reg who are caught up in quite the shady business. This is because everyone in the show is endearingly human, even when they make bad decisions. There are a lot of flashy series right now in this era of peak TV, but “The Chi” is one of the few about life as it is for many Americans in specific neighborhoods and cities. The power of this drama is found in the special way in which it simply tells the truth.

The Chi” season two airs April 7 with new episodes premiering Sundays at 6 p.m. ET on Showtime.