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Greatness is in the cards for Showtime's The Chi


Main players of The Chi, but other characters are also of import. Showtime photo

Premiering: Sunday, Jan. 7th at 9 p.m. (central) on Showtime
Starring: Jason Mitchell, Jacob Latimore, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, Yolonda Ross, Alex Hibbert, Tiffany Boone, Armando Riesco, Jahking Guillory, Steven Williams, Birgundi Baker, Shamon Brown, Michael Epps, Common
Produced by: Lena Waithe, Elwood Reid, Aaron Kaplan, Rick Famuyiwa, Derek Dudley, Shelby Stone, Common

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That didn’t take long. The first potentially great new TV series of 2018 is already upon us.

Showtime’s The Chi (Sunday, Jan. 7th at 9 p.m. central) is both a penetrating look at a hard-pressed neighborhood and a tale of two senseless murders. Its principal architect is Lena Waithe, who recently won a writing Emmy for the “Thanksgiving” episode of Netflix’s Master of None.

Her comments in publicity materials for The Chi speak to the heart of what she’s trying to do. This is a drama series “about what it means to be black and human on the South Side of Chicago,” she says. “It may seem like a simple concept, but that journey is very complex. I always wanted to write a multi-protagonist story that took place in the city where I’m from, because I know the people of Chicago are not monolithic. They all come from different walks of life and they all walk through the world very differently.”

The four episodes made available for review are not without a collection of certain “types.” But with Waithe at the helm, along with show runner Elwood Reid, they don’t come off as stereotypes. The Chi has the basic ingredients of most ensemble drama series -- characters who are mostly good and mostly bad, plus those caught in the middle by circumstances that keep bedeviling them. But how their stories play out is what makes or breaks a series. And The Chi shows strong signs of making its mark without losing its way during what will be a 10-episode Season One.

One key character in the premiere episode is fated to be a corpse before the closing credits. The identity won’t be given up here in the interests of allowing viewers to experience the full and eventually reverberating impact.

The series’ first victim is never seen among the living. Jason, a star basketball player, is found dead near a “stash house” in a lethal neighborhood. Discovering the body is teenager Coogie (Jahking Guillory), who gets around on a banana seat bike while getting by on guile and charm. He’s brought in for questioning by detective Rick Cruz (Armando Riesco), a good cop whose colleagues can’t always say the same.

Jason was the son of vagabond Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), a jobless hustler who talks about turning over new leafs but keeps dog-earing the pages. He’s fully intent on finding Jason’s killer, though.

Coogie’s half-brother, Brandon (Jason Mitchell), is a talented apprentice chef who dreams of opening his own place. He lives with girlfriend Jerrika (Tiffany Boone), a successful realtor. They’re The Chi’s case study in stability until events begin bleeding in.

There’s also Emmett (Jacob Latimore), a handsome playa and initially reluctant father whose no-nonsense mother, Jada (Yolonda Ross), tends to the stay-at-home sickly. Her patients include Ronnie’s very cantankerous grandma, Ethel (a scene-stealing performance by La Donna Tittle). Her tough love is of almost epic proportions.

Meanwhile, at Hopkins Prep, pals Kevin, Papa and Jake (Alex Hibbert, Shamon Brown, Michael Epps), have their foul-mouthed vocabularies down pat but remain relative innocents in their tough nut of a neighborhood. Seeing them interact is one of The Chi’s considerable charms -- even with f-bombs often attached.

Lurking about is Quentin (Steven Williams), who’s older, wiser and accustomed to having people owe him. Williams exudes an almost courtly menace in a role that gains traction in Episode 4.

Whether young, old or in-between, all of these characters resonate in their own distinct ways as The Chi builds both momentum and suspense. This is no small achievement for Waithe, whose first TV series under her direct control is bursting with flavor and humanity in a South Chicago proving ground. The footing is always slippery, but the storytelling remains bracingly sure-footed. Greatness beckons after the first four episodes. And so far there’s no reason to think that The Chi will fall short of achieving it.

GRADE: A-minus

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