January 6, 2018

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “The Chi”


THE CHI:  Sunday 10PM on Showtime – More Mean Streets

Showtime’s THE CHI is geographically close enough to the Chicago of its veteran hit Shameless that its characters could bump into Gallaghers at any given moment, but series creator Lena Waithe is influenced more by the work of David Simon, and not so much The Wire (although there is that) as Treme.  Like that series, The Chi concentrates less on law enforcement and criminals than on the ordinary people struggling in a difficult locale.

Waithe’s original voice was clear in her Emmy-award winning script for Master Of None, a semi-autobiographical account of her troubled relationship with her mother that encapsulated a gay Lady Bird into an hour of screen time.  The Chi, despite some fine moments, feels more prefabricated.  The pilot, written by Waithe and directed by Rick Famuyiwa, revolves around the repercussions of a pair of murders, the random shooting of a promising school athlete and a retaliation that follows.  Coogie (Jahking Guillory) finds the first body and becomes the second because of his impulsive theft from the corpse.  Those killings bring us into the orbit of the athlete’s stepfather Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), Coogie’s half-brother Brandon (Jason Mitchell), young witness Kevin (Alex Hibbert), newly-discovered father Emmett (Jacob Latimore) and others.

Some of the characters are more engaging than others (Kevin’s reluctant conscription into a school production of The Wiz to impress a girl is a delight), and some are more original than others (Brandon, an aspiring chef, feels like he’s barely boarded a bus from the New Orleans of Treme).  Waithe, in her first produced self-created series, may have attempted a more ambitious canvas than would have been optimal, and on initial viewing, actors like Sonja Sohn (herself of The Wire) as Coogie and Brandon’s mother, and Armando Riesco, as a somewhat sympathetic cop, have a limited amount to do.  (Somewhat oddly for a show created by a woman, the female characters so far are mostly thinner than the men.)  With the exception of the Kevin storyline, The Chi takes itself extremely seriously, playing against Waithe’s proven talent for comedy (and lacking the mix of humor and drama that Shameless uses well), and she doesn’t seem to have the appetite for sociopolitical dissection that make David Simon the artist he is.

It’s admirable that Showtime is giving prime real estate to fresh voices like Waithe and SMILF‘s Frankie Shaw, but the potential downside of those bets is that untried writer/producers create uneven work.  That was certainly the case with SMILF, whose quality varied greatly from episode to episode (and even within episodes), and The Chi so far leans too heavily on familiar Gritty Prestige TV tropes.  Better the inconsistency of Shaw and Waithe, though, than the staleness of Tom Kapinos’s White Famous, which Showtime has blessedly canceled.  Perhaps The Chi will develop into a worthy showcase for Waithe’s strengths, and perhaps it will just be a steppingstone for something more polished in her future, but in either case it will be worth some attention.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."