‘The Chi’ Closes a Powerful First Season by Bringing Its Characters Full Circle

The wide canvas of television has allowed for the creation of dramas which have the adequate space to tell stories of truly human dimensions. Showtime’s “The Chi” is a perfect example. Now closing its first season, this drama (executive produced by Common) has maintained a strong narrative edge for ten episodes by telling simple, raw storylines. It has followed a gallery of lives in Chicago’s south side as they grow, live and suffer. With a season finale both visceral and full of human warmth, the series solidifies itself as one of the year’s best newcomers.

The finale begins to thread together many of the storylines we have been following during the season. Pre-teen Kevin (Alex R. Hibbert) finds solace from a horrible choice he made earlier in the season by staying close to school buddy Papa (Shamon Brown Jr.), who finally stages the school play they have been rehearsing to no end (he’s the kind of kid who is sharp and might one day get out of here and become a film director). But it is among the adults where things really do start coming to a head. In the previous episode Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) decided to finally turn himself in and confess to the murder of Coogie Johnson (Jahking Guillory). Now he must face the consequences of surrendering and that means time behind bars. Street veteran Quentin Dickinson (Steven Williams) finds redemption of his own sort as well, a bloody redemption when he finds the killer of his son. Meanwhile Reg (Barton Fitzpatrick), as mired in the thug life as anyone can be, is suddenly promoted through circumstances to a higher level among his street crew, now setting his eyes on bigger hustles. Those not involved in crime still face major decisions. Emmett (Jacob Latimore) has been forced to finally grow up after discovering he’s a dad early in the season, but when signs point to his ex being in an abusive relationship, he has to decide how far he’ll go to protect his infant son. And then there’s Brandon (Jason Mitchell), who seemed to have found a good angle with his new food truck, but is reminded by Reg that he has debts to pay.

“The Chi” is a show based on a truthful exploration of different lives within the microcosm of one community. The hook of the show is that each life is interesting because no one here is romanticized, everyone is flawed, including the characters you could consider to be more likeable than others. The writing has a keen sense of how life’s difficulties always arise at the wrong moment. Just as Brandon, after leaving his chef’s job, seems to get it together with food trucking, the gang bangers appear and let him know he’s not exactly clean, setting the stage for even tougher choices to come in the next season. Just as Emmett becomes comfortable actually having a job and making his own money, a possible custody battle looms on the horizon. In the style of films like “Dope” or “Do the Right Thing,” “The Chi” pulsates with a vibrant authenticity because it understands that urban life is harrowing enough without needing to be exaggerated. Its characters are trapped in a socio-economic situation where you have little say in what cards you’re dealt.

Even murders on this show are tragic to a Shakespearean level. Early in the season the death of Coogie occurs as the result of a terrible misunderstanding by Ronnie, who himself was lost in a drunken haze. In the finale when Dickinson finds out the details of his own son’s death, they are just as tragic. The answers are so simple and the situation was so avoidable that the show generates a genuine frustration. Crime is not glamorized in “The Chi,” instead it is pathetic and senseless. A kid comes across the wrong people moving weapons at the wrong time of night and dies for it. There is a scene in a bar in the finale where a character gets revenge on someone, and while it has tension and blood, it isn’t exciting but like the natural culmination of corrupted lives. By now Kevin and Papa’s friend Jake (Michael Epps) has become so enthralled by his brother Reg that he’s practically dropped out of middle school. In a world without much opportunity, Jake has little reason to look ahead to anything better than gang life.

“The Chi” isn’t all gloom however. There is humor and liveliness in this show. Characters like Papa are loveable and funny (he continuously quotes Biblical wisdom imposed by his mom). Other characters persevere with humor and that dogged hope that tomorrow will be better. Some characters are developed in a subtle way in which we see how life changes them. In the season premiere Emmett was a selfish, overly-pampered guy who spent every dime he didn’t earn on new shoes. Now forced to work because of fatherhood, he is slowly growing into a mature, aware individual. There is a scene of great humor in the finale where he breaks into his ex’s apartment after hearing a possible fight. The way the moment develops shows that people aren’t always what they seem, and maybe Emmett was the more mature one all along. Through-out the season Brandon has been the most level-headed in the cast, yet he too makes stupid mistakes. An unwise affair costs him a good job, and as he learns the fiercely competitive ways of food trucking, he falls into other bad choices. We have seen him go from potential chef to now potential hustler, and we wonder if there is ever truly an escape.

This is one of the year’s best new TV dramas. “The Chi” has introduced itself with a season full of pathos, urban drama and powerful, universal storytelling. It closes one chapter and leaves us eager for the next one.

The Chi” Season One finale aired March 18 at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.