What if TV told the truth about Chicago?

Hate crime in Chicago isn't surprising, except to those who only know the place as seen on prime time

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published January 31, 2019 3:00PM (EST)

Aliyah Royale and Noah Wyle in "The Red Line" (CBS)
Aliyah Royale and Noah Wyle in "The Red Line" (CBS)

For many people the full horror of the racist, homophobic assault reported by “Empire” star and LGBTQ activist Jussie Smollett on Tuesday morning is still sinking in.

Unsettling details of what Smollett disclosed about the attack stir up feelings of rage and sorrow within any person possessing a conscience. According to a report released by the Chicago Police Department, Smollett’s assailants yelled racist and homophobic slurs at him before battering him, pouring a chemical substance on him and placing a rope around his neck.

To queer folks, black folks, and black queer folks, the symbolism of the props the perpetrators used — bleach, according to some reports, and a noose, along with the parting shot of “This is MAGA country” — hold a marrow-deep meaning. They are further confirmation that the deadly prejudice falsely believed to a relic of a past never went anywhere. It’s simply been hiding out and waiting for the right moment and signal to resurface.

But the perception of one famous player in this terrible narrative has yet to be discussed, even though Americans have a number of views and opinions about it. I’m referring to Chicago itself.

Right now Chicago is as famous as it is famously misunderstood among major American metropolises. Part of the reason for this perception is due to the city’s portrayal in prime time.

For this reason alone, shows like CBS’s upcoming limited series “The Red Line,” starring Noah Wyle as the spouse of a black gay man gunned down by a cop (Noel Fisher) who mistakes him for an assailant, could give the audiences a more illuminating portrait than anything that’s on television right now.

“The Red Line” debuts April 28, but to view an industry presentation about it in light of the developing story surrounding Smollett’s assault led me to ruminate upon the impact that TV’s portrayal of a place can have on our conversations about it, and the people who coexist and clash within its city limits.

Along with serving as Donald Trump’s go-to example of urban crime and social decay, Chicago is to modern television what New York was to the 1990s and early Aughts: an essential American cultural, socioeconomic and political hub whose legendary architecture, iconic skyline and an expansive waterfront make it impressively telegenic.

Chicago has an extensive backstory known the world over. Never mind the Al Capone of it all -- its political machine is among the nation’s most infamous, established by unscrupulous figures made notorious by the writing of Studs Terkel and Mike Royko and propelled by its colorful aldermen and ward officials.

Corruption is rampant in Chicago’s Police Department, a common knowledge among residents of color and confirmed by a number of studies and sources, including a Justice Department report made public in 2017.  Stories involving cops using excessive or lethal force against black or Latinx suspects at a rate disproportionate to white suspects often make national headlines.

For these reasons and others — including the city’s prominence in America’s industrial revolution and the labor movement, and the influx of African Americans who came to the city as part of Great Migration northward in the early part of 20th century — Chicago remains deeply segregated along racial lines. Those divisions are visible on city maps and noticeable when you walk down its sidewalks.

NBC’s “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago P.D.” and “Chicago Med” don’t dwell on that part of the story, because they’re series about people working within a specific structure. In those narratives the city’s identity is all but incidental.

And while I can’t say that “The Red Line” stands to definitely fill in those blanks, it is at least an intentionally noble effort. This is evidenced in the title: “The Red Line” is named for the elevated train line that runs from the northernmost part of the city, where a quick transfer takes commuters from wealthy suburbs such as Evanston (home to Northwestern University) into the downtown core, and to the deep South Side, where the majority of the city’s African American population lives.

The train line, as showrunner Caitlin Parrish told journalists attending a Wednesday morning press conference for the series, “[traverses] pretty much every neighborhood and demographic. And so as segregated as Chicago is, there is this means of transportation that touches on every kind of person in the city.”

(Producers and stars of “The Red Line” appeared as part of CBS’s presentation at Television Critics Association’s Winter Press Tour currently underway in Pasadena, CA.)

Parrish went on to explain when she and co-creator Erica Weiss first envisioned the drama, “we knew that we were going to be telling a story about very specific differences but also the things that connect us and the things that bring us together, and it just was our metaphor of choice.”

That said, “The Red Line” isn’t entirely a corrective enterprise. The miniseries began its existence as a theatrical work, and its most impactful aspects are emotional touchstones entirely linked to character. Chicago isn’t anonymous, but it is a stage where the flaws of its individuals are laid bare. But Chicago’s flaws, suffered and exploited by its residents, even fictional ones, are symptoms of an established political and social framework. At least in its opening episodes, that isn’t explicitly confronted.

“Our goal with ‘The Red Line’ was to have an important cultural conversation through the lens of an emotional family drama,” Weiss said. “We wanted to create “The Red Line” so that there would be a show that many different Americans from all different backgrounds could watch, maybe who wouldn’t otherwise watch the same show, and see themselves and therefore perhaps see each other more clearly.”

Most TV series adopt a character-focused approach for the same reason. The success of a show rests entirely on how much the audience relates to the fictional people within it and not necessarily the places they populate.

Just as the New York City of “Friends” or “Seinfeld” existed primarily in the minds of its writers, in Showtime’s “Shameless,” Chicago is a stomping ground for the Gallaghers, a working class family that feels authentically Chicagoan but really could live just about anywhere.

In the CBS All Access drama “The Good Fight,” Chicago is a liberal bastion, as co-creator Robert King told critics.

“We just thought it was a good city to place an African American firm,” he told critics on Wednesday. He’s not alone in that perception. “Proven Innocent,” Fox’s upcoming legal drama about a team of lawyers working to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, is set in Chicago but could just as easily exist in any major Northern American city.

Kelsey Grammer, one of the series co-stars and its primary antagonist, has a history with the place, having formerly starred as its id-driven amoral mayor in the short-lived Starz series “Boss.” Through that series, as well as Netflix’s “Easy,” Chicago is portrayed as a desirable place to and for people of means. FX’s “The League” also is set in Chicago, but for the most part the only people of color its principal cast members interacted with during the series were professional athletes.

And when USA Network decided to spin off Gina Torres’ “Suits” character Jessica Pearson, the producers moved her home to the Windy City, where she is now a political insider working with the city’s mayor. Chicago’s city hall is, apparently, one of the sexiest places to be.

Truly modern Chicago is a many faceted product of a colorful history, like any American city. And just like every city, violent crime is part of that story. But the average viewer's understanding about it, and any large American city for that matter, is the notion that once a person attains a certain economic stature and level of fame, this somehow enables that person to transcend the weight of race and class imposed by the residents of that city, and wider culture in general.

This is doubly true for someone like Smollett, a man starring in popular TV series airing on a major broadcast network. Black gay men are assaulted by strangers in cities around the country every day, and the world keeps on stepping. The fact that this black, gay man is a public figure, and the fact that the assault reportedly took place in one of Chicago’s wealthier neighborhoods, adds elements that make the crime even more shocking.

If this were a common mugging it would fit the Trump Administration narrative of Chicago being a lawless hellscape. If the suspects were brown or black, this would bring to life the conservative specter of cities being destroyed by black-on-black crime. Instead, the persons of interest sought by the police presented as members of the MAGA faithful, confidently spewing racist invective, according to Smollett’s report.

But the jaw-dropping part, to those who know how different living in American cities (and this country in general) can be for a white person and everyone else, is the disbelief coming from some quarters that a racist, homophobic hate crime could happen in the supposed liberal bastion that is Chicago, on a street, in full view of possible witnesses.

It’s only unbelievable if you don’t know the dynamics of every major city and, honestly, America’s past, present and likely future.

The Chicago element of the Smollett case, however, brings to light to the vast distance between the image established via political bluster and TV fiction, and the truth of this place.

But it also reveals the opportunity TV, particularly broadcast series, have to portray the truth of any established, famous locale. And Chicago is in many ways a model setting for sparking conversations about the racial, economic and social fault lines threatening to shake our democracy apart.

All credit is due to “The Chi,” Lena Waithe’s Showtime series that depicts the city from the perspective of its African American residents, whose life circumstances are similarly difficult to that of the Gallaghers but set in a side of town tourists are aware of but most never visit.

However, Showtime has a limited audience with the means to afford a premium cable subscription. Millions more viewers watch Dick Wolf’s Chicago titles and will potentially view “The Red Line.” “Pearson” has a cable berth, as does the upcoming Comedy Central series “South Side,” set in a rent-to-own store in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. Both are basic cable series, granting them a wider exposure than any view on basic cable.

And each promises a view of the city in its variety and its humanity — whether via the comfortable polished stone architecture of its power centers, as seen in “Pearson,” or from the perspective of an aspirational  working class entrepreneur.

At this point it’s too early to tell whether any of the city’s newest portrayals, or all of them in summary, will provide a more clarifying view of what Chicago actually is. And in some respect, that makes sense; how much do we really know about our stars?

A place, and its fame, lives beyond the whims and appeal of an entertainment season. The hope is that stories about it contained within that span can tell us few truths about it, and about us, that transcend any single incident, uplifting or terrible.

Chicago can be a fictional character, but outside of primetime, beyond television, it’s a real place whose people endure problems both minor and existential. Where life can be wonderful for all, but tends to be unfair and dangerous for specific people and for very specific, systemic reasons.

Typically we’re reminded of that when something awful happens to someone the widest swath of people can relate to. But since we have multiple fictionalized opportunities to see city stories on the TV schedule, it would be useful to witness these truths more frequently.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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