Published on April 11th, 2018 | by Ian Goodwillie0
The Chi is a recent TV series from Lena Waithe (Dear White People), which deftly wanders through several genres, from mystery to drama.
“Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle”
– Abraham Lincoln.
Okay, there’s literally no evidence that Abraham Lincoln ever said that but it’s widely attributed to him online. That and $4.95 might get you an overpriced coffee at Starbucks. But you gotta admit that line has a nice ring to it.
And it’s kind of appropriate to the conversation.
At the core of The Chi is the hustle. It’s about those who hustle. Those who tried to leave the hustle behind. Those who get caught up in the hustle even though they aren’t hustlers. It’s about people trying to get by in the in a rough situation that seems impossible to make better.
The Chi was created by Lena Waithe, the award-winning writer, actress, and producer known for her work on Bones, Dear White People, and Master of None. She developed The Chi for Showtime with rapper and actor Common on board as a producer. Both Waithe and Common were born in Chicago, where the series is set. Waithe drew directly upon her experience to create a series about the South Side of Chicago.
The events of The Chi start with the murder of an up and coming basketball player named Jason. He’s shot to death on a seemingly random street corner, an act written off for the most part by police as another dead black kid in the hood. The case is exacerbated by the shooting death of another kid who was…you know, I’m just gonna let you watch the show and enjoy that gut punch of a moment for yourself. From the groundwork laid out in the first episode, we follow several characters throughout the expertly constructed maze of a story initiated by Jason’s death.
What is truly impressive about The Chi is all the moving parts that are in place. The viewer follows several stories, most of which impact each other on some level even if that’s not obvious to the characters themselves. It would be easy for all of this to go off the rails quite quickly but the story maintains by staying balanced and engaging.
That being said, there are several side characters that have incomplete story arcs. It’s not that everyone needs an ending that ties up nicely but it’s hard when you become engaged in a character only to have them fall off the radar. One specific example of this is Hannibal, cousin of one of the main characters, Brandon Johnson. He’s interesting and unique in The Chi, adding a much needed dimension to the episodes he’s in. The last time we see him is episode eight. He quite literally walks out of the scene and out of the show.
Fortunately, there’s a second season coming so there’s a chance for Hannibal to make a comeback.
Even more so than Hannibal, Miss Ethel, and Q, the show’s biggest scene stealer is Papa, the young friend of Kevin and Jake. Kevin is going through a traditional coming of age story complicated by witnessing one of the two murders in the first episode. Jake is the younger brother of Reg, who is deep in the hustle and slowly dragging kid brother into it with him. Papa is just Papa. Loud but intelligent. Brash but suave. And the big man has moves. The character quite literally lights up every scene he’s in, which is important given how hard this show is to watch.
When I say, “hard to watch,” I don’t mean that in a negative way. I mean in the way that you are engaged in a well-constructed story with great characters that keeps you glued to the screen because you know everything could go south at a moment’s notice. That’s the reality of The Chi. It’s real. You know many aspects are overdramatized a bit for the purpose of making good TV but there is still a realness to it. In the real world, kids are getting shot for being in the wrong place on the wrong time. Young men and women have to hustle to make ends meet. Babies get born to people who are still kids. Choices get made and it gets rough.
That’s where Q comes in. He’s the returning leader of the old guard who ran the streets of the South Side, coming out of retirement thanks to Jason’s death. He’s an unlikely hero in the story who is trying to use his villainous ways to right a wrong.
And he’s genuinely menacing. He’s the kind of guy that only says five words to make a point and genuinely scares the crap out of you doing it.
Q’s presence is countered by Emmett, a young man with too many kids by too many women. One of these women finally confronts him and forces him to take responsibility for his child. And he does while trying to make the decision of whether to follow Q’s path or the one straight and narrow one laid down by Q’s brother Sonny. Again, this story is an emotional rollercoaster but also an uplifting one. Watching Emmett grow is one of the joys in The Chi.
Seriously. Q scares the crap out of me.
The beauty of The Chi is its approachable complexity. It’s a murder mystery coated in three or four different coming of age stories while a couple of different dramas play out. And it’s a wrapped in the knowledge that you’re watching something willing to pull the rug out from under you. The best part? It all works. Period.
What’s truly surprising about this series is how few people seem to be talking about it. Change that. Get on The Chi before season two drops.