Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Pilot Review: Chicago Justice

Chicago Justice (Sundays at 9:00 on NBC; Beginning March 5)

It would be redundant to recommend Chicago Justice or not. I highly doubt anyone tuning into tonight's premiere cares about the quality of the writing, direction, or performances. Fans of the Chicago franchise don't need an outsider weighing in on the successes or failures of the newest addition to Dick Wolf's alternate urban reality, because they're going to watch Chicago Justice regardless. Those who aren't currently invested in the adventures of at least one other Chicago department probably don't care much about dropping in on this particular iteration either. But if you're one of the few who doesn't care about the Chicago shows and is just genuinely curious about the prospects of a legal procedural set somewhere other than the two coasts, know this: you're not missing much by passing on this or any other Windy City division.

In case you haven't been keeping track (or just don't care), Chicago Justice marks the fourth Dick Wolf production to be set in the eponymous city, following Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., and Chicago Med. They each have their merits and faults, but Justice unfortunately has more of the latter. Right off the bat, the series is at more of a disadvantage than its predecessors because it's built almost entirely into the mythology of the existing series. More than any of the previous three shows, this one proves most difficult for newcomers to jump on board. The fact that the very first episode doesn't tell its own story is a big part of that problem; the first hour is both the premiere of Justice and the conclusion of a multi-episode storyline that begins on Fire and continues on P.D. It's hard to acquaint yourself with a new show when your introduction to its new characters and setting are established as part of an existing world (prior to NBC ordering Justice to series, some of the characters appeared in a backdoor pilot which aired on May 11 last year as an episode of P.D.).

Further, Justice seems to have been created as not only the "legal" branch of professionals working in Chicago but also as a kind of dumping ground for all those other branches. I've been trying to parse out why Wolf and co-creator Matt Olmstead decided to call the show Chicago Justice rather than Chicago Law, which would have been more in-line with the naming of the rest of the franchise. The show's inextricablility from the others is likely the reason. This isn't a show that's just focusing on lawyers and legal cases in the city, like how P.D. is about cops doing policework or Med is about doctors in a hospital. Justice carries through to all those other places, not just the courtroom. That idea is hammered home, obviously, in the crossover-concluding pilot story and in the cast of characters. Justice follows a group of prosecutors and investigators for the State's Attorney's office, one of whom is Antonio Dawson (Jon Seda), who started out on Chicago Fire before transferring to Chicago P.D. He's resigned from his job there and now lands the position of Chief Investigator for SA Mark Jefferies (Apollo Creed himself, Carl Weathers) and his Assistant SA Peter Stone (Philip Winchester, from last season's The Player). Adding to the intricacy of the character relationships, Peter is the son of Ben Stone, one of the lawyers from the first four seasons of Law & Order, because yes, having four interrelated shows wasn't enough; they also exist in the same fictional universe as the Law & Order franchise.

This is all a really long way of saying that for those who already watch and enjoy the Chicago shows, Justice will be a fine addition to their viewing schedules. The relationships between the new and old characters will feel familiar and add a bit more interest to the otherwise mediocre machinations of the standard legal procedural basis that is Chicago Justice. The show is still familiar enough that viewers can probably drop in and out of episodes without missing much, like Law & Order. But for those who don't, the connections across shows make everything feel muddled and occasionally confusing. For instance, the time period premiere, airing this Sunday at 9:00, features appearances by several P.D. cast members new viewers will not recognize, and trying to piece together everyone's relationships to everyone else is tiring. It doesn't help that the case, involving a policeman on trial for shooting a civilian, is the kind of boilerplate ripped-from-the-headlines stuff Wolf used to do back in the 90s (this one has clear shades of Freddie Gray).

Justice, sadly, ends up as just another forgettable cog in the NBC procedural machine. There's no reason for it to exist, as it never gets the opportunity in its first few episodes to stand on its own and functions mostly as an extension of the Chicago universe rather than as an integral part of it. Justice doesn't elevate the franchise in any way and often actually does the exact opposite: it gets bogged down in its own histories and connections.

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