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Showtime's compelling 'The Chi' looks deeper, but perhaps not deep enough, into the South Side

Showtime's compelling 'The Chi' looks deeper, but perhaps not deep enough, into the South Side
Shamon Brown, as Papa, gets a party started in the new Showtime series "The Chi." (Matt Dinerstein / Showtime)

Lena Waithe, who plays Denise on "Master of None" and won an Emmy for writing its "Thanksgiving" episode, has now created "The Chi," a drama set and filmed on the South Side of Chicago, where she grew up. The series, which premieres Sunday on Showtime (its first episode having already been available to preview via YouTube), is well-made and involving and enlivened at every turn by a multigenerational cast whose youngest members are as impressive as the veterans.

The story begins, as many stories do, with a body, a neighborhood high school basketball star shot dead on a corner where no one would have expected to find him. There is a mystery, therefore, and a couple of police detectives wandering around the edges of the story, but this is hardly a procedural. You will not confuse it with any of the Dick Wolf shows whose titles start with "Chicago" over on NBC.

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Brandon (Jason Mitchell), a talented cook with a girlfriend (Tiffany Boone) from a better background, dreams of becoming a chef. Emmett (Jacob Latimore), a young man whose life revolves around sex and sneakers, suddenly finds himself taking care of a baby; Kevin (Alex Hibbert), a middle-school kid, signs up to audition for a play because he likes a classmate; and Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), an otherwise aimless sort who helped raise the boy whose death sets off the drama, stumbles into doing something about it.

Still, it seems worth mentioning a couple of points, with the proviso that subsequent episodes — I've seen four out of 10 — may make my comments moot. And, again, I like the show; it's genuinely compelling, never descends to melodrama, and rarely feels synthetic, over-directed or under-written.

First, despite a number of women writing and directing for the series, the female characters — notably including Yolonda Ross as Emmett's mother, Jada, Sonja Sohn as Brandon's mother, Laverne, and Tai'isha Davis as the murdered boy's mother, Tracy — are all secondary, supporting parts. That's not to say they aren't given good words to say and scenes to play and fine actresses to play them. But four episodes in, none has worked up to the status of protagonist — their fates are not really at stake here, only how they they influence or fail to influence, support or fail to support the more flamboyantly troubled men in their lives.

Alex Hibbert, as Kevin, and Jason Mitchell, as Brandon, have unexpected business together in Showtime's "The Chi."
Alex Hibbert, as Kevin, and Jason Mitchell, as Brandon, have unexpected business together in Showtime's "The Chi." (Matt Dinerstein/Showtime)

Possibly this is because, being on the whole smarter, more mature and farther-sighted than the male characters — pressured from within or without to enact certain self-defeating rituals of manliness — they may seem inherently less dramatic, less liable to draw an audience, to pull the numbers. (This exchange, stripped of identifying spoilers, sums up the series' male-female dynamic neatly. He: "You got anything for the pain?" She: "Yeah, don't get shot again.") In any case, they get short shrift.

A second, somewhat related point: Early on, "The Chi" seems set to present a mosaic, a wide-ranging group portrait that would do for the South Side something like what David Simon and Eric Overmyer did for New Orleans in their late HBO series "Treme" — to show the variety of life in a place whose reputation can dreadfully precede it. But as it goes on, most of its story lines draw together under the shadow of that initial violence; the series loses interest in — never develops, really — Brandon's professional aspirations, the school play, or Emmett's fatherhood, except as a device prompting him to look for money.

There are hundreds of thousands of stories on the South Side of Chicago, which is itself a collection of better and worse neighborhoods, and some of them presumably have little or nothing to do with guns, drugs, debts owed to bad people or potentially literal fatal mistakes. Death and grief, crime and revenge are powerful plot engines, which is why so many hours of weekly television are devoted to portraying them; but were you to remove the bodies and the bad guys from the story, there is enough individual life in these characters to make them worth knowing.

If anyone would care to make a series in which an inner-city middle-school production of "The Wiz" was the dramatic anchor, I would watch that. But I will continue to watch this too.

'The Chi'

Where: Showtime

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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