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‘The Chi’ review: Outstanding cast, but unfocused story

Alex Hibbert, left, and Jason Mitchell star in

Alex Hibbert, left, and Jason Mitchell star in "The Chi" on Showtime. Credit: Showtime / Matt Dinerstein

THE SERIES “The Chi”

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Brandon (Jason Mitchell, “Straight Outta Compton”) is an aspiring chef who has big dreams of one day opening his own restaurant far from the South Side of Chicago where he and his mom, Laverne (Sonja Sohn) live. But a fraught past and more fraught present is about to complicate this.

Meanwhile, grade-schooler Kevin (Alex Hibbert) suddenly finds himself entangled in a brutal neighborhood slaying in Brandon’s neighborhood, and so does grieving father Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine). A frustrated cop, Det. Cruz (Armando Riesco) is trying to make sense of all of this. This 10-episode series was created (and largely written) by Lena Waithe, of Netflix’s “Master of None,” for which she won an Emmy for comedy writing in 2017 — a first for an African American woman. The rapper Common is an executive producer.

MY SAY Thanks to talent and timing, Waithe is right at the forefront of the most important and long overdue advancement of the TV century — minority representation, also minority voice, point of view and perspective. That term “minority” was once shorthand for “black,” but during the peak TV era, it’s been updated to add a few other colors to the rainbow. Waithe herself famously thanked the Television Academy last fall for “embracing a little Indian boy from South Carolina [‘Master of None’ star/creator Aziz Ansari] and a little queer girl from the South Side of Chicago [Waithe].”

With this drumroll, you now know why “The Chi” is such a critical launch for Showtime. It’s about prestige and awards and (of course) subscribers, but it’s also about those other voices. Chicago may be the current capital of the prime-time procedural, but that doesn’t mean those voices often get heard. They don’t, and “The Chi” is about to set that record straight. Foremost, this series is about voices — the way people talk, what they say and what they mean when they say it. They talk their way through their preoccupations and fears, and through their basic, daily all-too-human rhythms.

The cast — almost entirely black — fills the screen with forgotten, invisible lives, from the derelict who arranges his mattress just below the underpass, to the granite-faced old man who sees the occasional bloodletting as bad for business. “The Wire” long ago set the bar for this kind of storytelling, and successors — at least worthy ones — wouldn’t dare fake their way around these kinds of critical elements. More good news for “The Chi:” It doesn’t.

But that doesn’t mean this newcomer gets all the other critical elements right. Story-wise, “The Chi” takes a wrong turn in the pilot and then spends the better part of the next three episodes — the ones offered for review — trying to correct course. What begins as a sharply drawn coming-of-age story then pivots to other narrative tangents, like revenge and the cycle of violence. There’s a good cop/bad cop storyline tangled up with a mystery arc, police investigation and gangland turf warfare. There are some family dynamics here too, lots of those.

Meanwhile, there’s not just one, but two grim, soul-sucking, senseless tragedies that frame the premise. “The Chi” is all about despair wrapped in calamity. This may be an accurate read of these streets, but even tragedies need hope, however quixotic. There’s none here.

BOTTOM LINE Waithe proves that Emmy for writing was no fluke — script and cast are outstanding — but “The Chi” takes on too much, too soon, and the story loses focus and latent power as a consequence.

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