Getting ready to board “The Red Line”

Southbound Red Line train heading to 95th St. at Lawrence Ave. station. (Graham Garfield)

Limited-series debuts amid back drop of real-life problems, including Jussie Smollett

The latest drama to be based in Chicago debuts (or debuted) Sunday night titled The Red Line.

But you wonder if Chicago TV viewers would board for the ride.

Named after the “L” line running from Howard Street in the North Side’s Rogers Park community to 95th Street on the South Side’s Roseland community, is from Greg Bernati and African-American director Ava DuVernay and bonds together three Chicago families in the aftermath of a police shooting of an African-American man.

But the premiere of this “limited” series on CBS comes amid a backdrop of the real-life saga of an actor who appears on another television series on another network: one currently dividing Chicago among racial lines and also premieres months after police officer Jason Van Dyke was sentenced for the murder of Laquan McDonald, which took place five years ago.

The last few years have seen increased production of shows based and shot in Chicago, including Shameless, The Chicago Code, APB, and The Chi – not to mention Dick Wolf’s trio of “Chicago” shows. But some of these shows have come under fire from locals for inaccurately portraying Chicago and the social issues it faces.

In 2011, Fox debuted The Chicago Code to great fanfare, promoted heavily the night before during Super Bowl XLV. But viewers simply weren’t interested in the inner-workings of corruption and “The Chicago Way” and was canceled after thirteen episodes. Another based-in-Chicago on Fox called APB came and went two years ago also after thirteen episodes and featured some of the same shtick found in Code, with the use of high-tech gizmos as the only difference. Both series were panned by locals, particularly Tribune columnist John Kass.

In addition, a movie directed by Spike Lee called Chiraq got grief from its name alone.

Noah Wyle (l.) and Aliyah Royale in CBS’ “The Red Line”. Photo: Elizabeth Morris/CBS (c) 2018 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

On the other hand, Showtime’s Shameless and The Chi (the latter produced by Chicago natives Lena Waithe and Common) have been praised for their approach to real-life situations and relatable characters.

And although their reviews from critics and audiences are mixed, Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D. and Chicago Med all are Wednesday night hits for NBC.

Even though The Red Line’s Metacritic rating is at 65 and the score at Rotten Tomatoes is 82 percent, reviews were mixed – though many praised the performance of Noah Wyle, who starred in another shot-in-Chicago drama (at least part-time, anyway) ER: The highest score came from Paste Magazine’s Amy Amatangelo: “At times The Red Line is cluttered and clunky. Still, there’s so much good stuff to focus on that the flaws can be overlooked. Wyle is amazing in the role. He brings depth and nuance to a man who is in deep, deep grief, while also fighting for justice for his husband.” Even the nicest review came with some kind of shot.

A more neutral opinion came from CNN’s Brian Lowry: “This tragic tale of a police shooting and its aftermath — infused by race and the rough-and-tumble of Chicago politics — plays like a rather pallid soap opera, awkwardly juggling its intersecting plots”, which could be used to describe Chicago Code. Though not counted in Metacritic, a more dissenting opinion came from former Electronic Media reporter and current Mediapost TV critic Adam Buckman: “So now, as if problems related to police violence in Chicago were not serious enough in the real world, along comes this unnecessary and exploitative series about a fictionalized incident inspired by real-life events both in Chicago and elsewhere.”

The piece was even titled “Presented For Your Entertainment: Chicago Violence On CBS”, something even this blog alluded to nearly a decade ago.

But the real question is, will viewers – especially in Chicago – tune in? The last few years have been rough for the Windy City, and you’ve read them right here: rampant gun violence, a stubborn racial divide, financial problems, and non-stop bashing from President Trump and other conservatives. And more recently, Chicagoans had to deal with fallout from the Jussie Smollett case and LaQuan McDoanld’s murder. I’m not sure local viewers en masse can stomach yet another network TV show about Chicago and its problems when you can simply tune in to the local news every day. As Buckman pointed out, TV simply isn’t fun anymore, but you can blame media consolidation for sapping the fun out of TV in the first place.

I’m also not sure if a drama like The Red Line works on broadcast TV as this type of fare seems to work better on streaming and premium cable – like The Chi, or the Urban Movie Channel’s 5th Ward (similar to The Chi but based in Houston) – where characters and storylines can be developed without slaving to the act break structure used to sell rip-off mobile carrier plans and insurance policies from a red-haired woman named Flo and her loser co-worker Jamie. Yes, Dick Wolf’s shows are procedurals, but they seem to work without completely being clueless about Chicago and within the act structure for television.

Even though reviews are promising – to an extent – I’m not expecting much in the ratings department for Red Line as it is cobbled together to run eight episodes in four weeks – otherwise known as a burn-off. If The Red Line looks like another Chicago Code/Chiraq/APB clunker, viewers on this train will pull the red knob and head for the exits.


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