The earliest TV crime dramas were, in essence, cut from the same cloth as the Westerns that aired around them -- clear black-and-white delineations of good and evil. On shows like "Dragnet" or "The Untouchables," the heroes were generally square-jawed, honorable men who sought justice. The villains were often snarling, ruthless lowlifes who would rob, steal and/or kill to subvert the rule of law. The lead detective wasn't dealing with a substance abuse problem or struggling emotionally while in the midst of a messy divorce; the main bad guy wasn't kind to small children or trying to find time to visit his elderly mother in the hospital.
As times changed, creative writers and producers in the genre started making small tweaks to the formula, adding shades of grey to the characters and situations, and found that audiences responded positively to this blurring of the lines. No matter the changes, the police would still have criminals to pursue -- but now the people and the world they were occupying was an identifiable sort. Popular and award-winning shows like "Hill Street Blues," "Homicide: Life on the Street," "NYPD Blue" and "Law and Order" were built using these traits.
The new Fox series "The Chicago Code," which airs Monday nights at 8 p.m., is another crime drama that aims to follow in the tradition of those shows. Show creator Shawn Ryan ("The Shield" and "The Unit") has assembled a very good cast -- including Jennifer Beals, Jason Clarke and Delroy Lindo -- to tell the story of an off-the-books task force put together to bring down a corrupt city alderman.
Beals plays Teresa Colvin, Chicago's recently minted top cop, who calls on Clarke's Jarek Wysocki, a maverick detective (and Colvin's ex-partner) to spearhead her initiative. Their target is Alderman Ronin Gibbons (played by Lindo), whose hands are seemingly in every criminal enterprise in the city, but since he also might be the most politically powerful man in Chicago, they are up against a very formidable foe.
The show has an "Untouchables" feel to it, actually, and not only in location; Gibbons makes for an imposing Al Capone-style villain, while Colvin and Wysocki are practically the two halves of Eliot Ness in most of their words and actions. (Wysocki, for example, dresses down a fellow detective for using harsh language in front of children who are bystanders at the scene of an arrest.)
The show does give Wysocki a bit of shading in his personal life (he's engaged, but cheating on his fiancee with his ex-wife), but mostly he's a straight-up good guy. Colvin, however -- at least in the pilot -- appears to be one mask-and-cape ensemble away from being a superhero, albeit a currently bureaucratic one. (This isn't to say that Beals and Clarke aren't fine in their parts; they acquit themselves quite well -- they're both likable and believable as ex-partners who have maintained their personal and professional friendship.)
I guess I wanted more punch to the story, more surprise in the characters, particularly from Gibbons, who teeters dangerously close to mustache-twirling levels of evil. (An all-too-brief voiceover by Gibbons about the good that he accomplishes in his position is interesting, but left me wanting much more.) Thankfully, there is a late plot turn which indeed gives a hint of where the show could be headed in the future; I liked seeing that sudden raising of the stakes.
Right now, "The Chicago Code" appears to be a solid cop serial, one worth watching -- but with the potential for a lot more. The coming weeks will determine if Ryan -- a very good writer with a strong track record of telling interesting stories in this genre -- will be able to give the characters and the situations those shades of grey that could make this show one to really celebrate.
Three stars (out of four).