Saturday, January 11, 2014

Pilot Review: Chicago P.D.

Chicago P.D. (Wednesdays at 10:00 on NBC)

This is Dick Wolf at his most comfortable. Chicago PD is the kind of show that doesn't do or say anything new, but it looks good and has that familiarity that will keep you glued to your couch for hours on end, like those Law & Order: SVU marathons we all get stuck watching on our days off. Chicago PD is entirely melodramatic, but, like all Dick Wolf shows, there's a grittiness and a seediness that is appealing to casual, non-analytic viewers (and sometimes to exhausted over-analyzers like myself).

A spin-off from the moderately popular sophomore NBC series Chicago Fire, PD follows a group of officers in the Chicago Police Department's 21st District. They are led by Hank Voight (Jason Beghe), who first appeared as a corrupt cop on Fire, a rule-breaker on the road to redemption following a stint behind bars. Other members of the unit include Detectives Dawson (Jon Seda), who'd never even think of breaking a rule, and Halstead (Jesse Lee Soffer), both from Chicago Fire; and former delinquent Erin Lindsay (Sophia Bush), one of only two females in the unit; plus a slew of other detectives and officers, including one played by veteran actor Elias Koteas. Together they represent two distinct divisions: beat cops and members of the Intelligence Unit, who handle major offenses like organized crime, all of whom work toward keeping the peace in the often-dangerous city of Chicago.

To begin with, you don't need to watch Chicago Fire in order to understand or appreciate this show. In the pilot, there is only one character that has crossed over; this is, otherwise, a brand new ballgame. There will be episodes further into the season which see characters cross over with Fire, but you can begin PD without having seen the parent show. Also of interest (and of confusion) is that producers have confirmed a cross-over with characters from Law & Order: SVU, so PD (and Fire, by extension) takes place in the same universe as Dick Wolf's other popular series. This is confusing because one of the lead characters on Chicago PD is portrayed by Jon Seda, who played Detective Falsone in the last three seasons of Wolf's Homicide: Life on the Street. Here, Seda plays a completely different character who apparently exists in the same fictional universe as Falsone. Weird, right? Maybe Wolf can arrange for a cross-over in which Falsone meets Dawson, with Seda playing both parts like some demented Parent Trap.

Because that would be more original than most anything in Chicago PD. If you've seen one police procedural, you've seen them all. There's a darkness and gritty edge to PD that isn't typical of, say, the CBS procedurals, but it's not breaking new ground really; it's actually less edgy than some early episodes of SVU and NBC's failed Prime Suspect remake from a couple years back. But still, there's something appealing about a "darker" block of crime shows (this and SVU air back-to-back) to balance out the sunny locales of the NCIS shows, Hawaii Five-0, and the like. And Chicago PD is grounded and realistic, thanks to some nice direction from Emmy-winning cinematographer Michael Slovis (Breaking Bad, CSI) and an intense central performance from Jason Beghe. The rest of the cast is strong, but none so memorable as Beghe, with that Clint Eastwood swagger and gravelly, harsh voice. It's hard to deny the raw energy and adrenaline on display in PD, and it can be contagious. Despite its lack of originality, the gloomy overtones and literal and figurative darkness lend a sense of gravity absent from many other crime shows. It's a throwback to the stronger days of Dick Wolf's other shows, when realism was just starting to be explored on police dramas (as great as shows like the original Ironside and Murder, She Wrote were, they weren't exactly exploring political extortion, sex trafficking, or anything quite so serious).

While Chicago PD isn't really anything you haven't seen before, it's still a testament to the fact that cop shows can be good with a little effort thrown in. (It's easily the best of the three new ones which debuted this week.) The shaky camera work and zero-to-sixty pacing remind me of the dearly departed Southland, my vote for television's greatest cop drama. PD is equally intense, and its final five minutes are gutsy. So though you can think of a dozen shows just like it, it's nice to be reminded that that isn't always a bad thing.

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