And so it begins, with the voice of our mayor — "You want to see America you come to the heartland, and what is the capital of the heartland?" — and images of our city, the first of eight — that's right, eight — episodes of a very ambitious, alternately exciting and depressing CNN television series titled "Chicagoland."
And so does it contain these chilling words from a young girl, "They even tried to beat on my little sister and she's only in the first grade," followed quickly (jarringly) by Rahm Emanuel cheering on the Bulls from his courtside seat.
A feast of bright and dark images and emerging story lines — most prominently violence and public schools — the program can be seen at 9 p.m. Thursday and again at 7 and 10 p.m. Saturday and then again at 9 p.m. and midnight Sunday and then again at 3 a.m. Monday. That's a lot of television real estate, indicating perhaps not so much the quality of the series — I'll get to that in a moment and over the next seven weeks — but how important it is to CNN as it attempts to reshape the network and boost sagging ratings under the guidance of former top NBC executive Jeff Zucker, CNN's worldwide president since November 2012.
And as self-centered and chauvinistic as we as a city can collectively be, please remember that this program will be seen across the country, and possibly at some late dates across the planet. For many viewers and for many years it will define our city.
First, yes, I hate the title too; a silly word coined by former Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick nearly a century ago.
But as one of the show's producers says, "There's something the word that suggests it's bigger than a city and speaks to folks across the country. And it also refers to this notion of the "Metro Revolution," that the metropolitan areas of today's global cities are the engines of change and innovation in the 21st Century. We just started with that as a working title and CNN liked it, and we never seriously considered anything else."
So be it. "Chicagoland" is produced by Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin, two experienced pros who examined, in but five parts, the city of Newark, N.J., and its mayor, Corey Booker, on the Sundance Channel in 2009. That series, "Brick City," set the framework and tone for this longer series and put them into creative contact with the people who are the "Chicagoland" executive producers, Laura Michalchyshyn and Robert Redford.
With Al Capone long dead and Michael Jordan long gone, the series "stars" such familiar figures as Emanuel and police Superintendent Garry McCarthy (also a prominent player in "Brick City"). Both obviously gave the production team's cameras terrific access (in otherwise private meetings, driving around in cars, etc.). They make the most of it to, giving us the mayor explaining to schoolchildren how he lost a portion of his finger, and, to other kids, how he and his former boss, President Barack Obama, once joked about opening a T-shirt shop in Hawaii. That is such an odd story that it should linger for some time.
He is so much more comfortable in the company of children than with reporters, for we also see him bolt from a press conference as reporters fruitlessly continue to throw questions at him during an otherwise self-serving jobs-creation event out in the neighborhoods.
The first episode has a cameo appearance by Michelle Obama but no display of Emanuel's famous temper or foul-mouthed proclivities; still, there is a lot of anger and emotion here, much of it in the person of 9-year-old Asean Johnson (a star is born) — a pint-size, electrifying orator fighting to save his school from being among the 54 public schools on the mayor's chopping block — and Emanuel's most potent critic, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who labels him, in news clips, not only a "liar" and a "bully" but also "the murder mayor."
Lewis and much else in this first episode, shot over eight months last year, will be familiar to local viewers. We watched events unfold in newspapers and on television. But, beautifully and compellingly shot in HD (mostly by local talent under the guidance of Benjamin and Levin) in fast-paced style, the show is not at all afraid to take us to parts of town most of us never visit.
So, welcome to Roseland, the beaten up and beleaguered Far South Side neighborhood, and meet Elizabeth Dozier (a star is born 2) , the passionately committed principal of Fenger Academy High School. She arrived but weeks before the Sept. 24, 2009 beating death of 16-year-old sophomore Derrion Albert outside the school. In the years since Dozier has done much to stem the tide of violence at Fenger but there are troubles over which she and her staff have no control. And we watch a planned "peace march" fall apart after a shooting death in the neighborhood.
There already is and will be more blood in this series, co-written (with Levin) and narrated by local reporter/columnist Mark Konkol. There will be more Emanuel and McCarthy and Dozier (theirs are the faces featured in the series' poster and advertising). But there will also be voices filled with heartbreak and with happiness, people we do not know.
It would be foolhardy to consider this first episode anything more than a first episode. Indeed the producers were still shooting Sunday, as the mayor jumped in the lake. Will that make the final cut? But that said, this premier episode is an intriguing appetizer, such an effective and marvelously varied concoction that it bodes well for the courses to follow. You'll just have watch and/or keep reading my reviews every Thursday — and do not hesitate to send me your thoughts, criticisms, rants or raves.
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