The Chicago TV franchise feels like a pale imitation of the things I write, which is really strange seeing as the first episode of the whole thing aired long before I tried imitating Dan Harmon’s story circles, let alone before I started trying to apply dramatic principles. The franchise was developed by Dick Wolf, and is part of the Law & Order universe whilst having its own distinct set of rules. Rather than each episode covering the process of a single case, it works more like a soap opera, with individual episodes having A, B, C, and D plots that track relationships and personal developments that are set in motion by, if not the case o’ the week, then the processes that particular career requires. Not only is that a very good description of my beloved The Shield, it’s an accurate description of the exact kind of thing I want to write and love to write. I love watching a complex network of relationships and watching an idea or an action reverberate throughout a social network, and the way a specific individual can fit and not fit into a broader system of people. So I find it utterly fascinating that I can’t muster even the slightest interest in the franchise; Law & Order is everything I choose not to do in writing and I can never look away, while the Chicago franchise is everything I try to be and I often fail to remember what happened in it while watching it. It’s often the case that mediocre works imitate the surface of great works while missing the principles; perhaps time has gone out of wonk and something great I wrote down the road reverberated backwards, and so it’s worth setting the record straight in this middle point.
Arrogant jokes aside, these shows do feel like a Law & Order storyteller trying to write a dramatic soap opera and finding their old instincts keep bubbling to the surface. Of all the shows in the world, the one L&O reminds me of the most in terms of process is Seinfeld, of all things. Both shows are less stories and more tone poems, meditations on a single feeling with the intent of passing that specific feeling onto an audience – detached amusement for the latter, moral outrage for the former. Their absolute dedication to their respective emotions are part of what make them so enduring; I am always here, of course, for a comedy that refuses to be anything other than a comedy, but aside from my personal fascination with L&O‘s outrage, I know it has a strong appeal for victims of sexual assault who want to see a fantasy of cops who care deeply about protecting victims and punishing victimisers, and to see that consistently play out over and over. The Chicago franchise is different; it’s shooting for a much wider tonal palette, with heroic anxiety right next to comedy, and the first problem with the franchise is that none of this feels sincere. Being as charitable as possible, it’s as if all the characters agreed beforehand that this scene was going to be serious and that scene was going to be funny. This kind of play-acting at emotion isn’t a killer for me, but I do think the shows are particularly unsophisticated at it. There’s a difference between an ironic smile as you deliver a joke and a poke in the ribs.
The more important problem is that none of these goddamned people are distinguishable from each other. Even ignoring the fact that they’re all either TV hot or TV ugly, they all have exactly the same personality, exactly the same motivations, and exactly the same sense of humour. This isn’t a problem on Law & Order, and in fact it’s a virtue; it keeps the focus on the case, and differentiation comes in random information the characters know or observations they’re capable of making. I may have talked about the show’s lack of empathy, but it does get a genuine glee out of playing the freak o’ the week – playing as a gamer or a furry or a gangster or a pervert, putting their words in your mouth before yelling at them, and of course it’s more than enthusiastic about playing as a cop every week. The Chicago franchise lacks that same kind of playfulness; characters have different situations and different levels of authority, but they’re all interchangeable hypercompetent overachieving quip machines who have the exact same awe at being in their position. This isn’t a network of human beings that came together to solve the same problems, it’s a single machine with many different parts, and that only deadens the emotional arcs further; mistakes and choices feel forced rather than natural, the machine deliberately going in a cheap direction for an episode.
Worst of all though is the same issue every bad work of fiction has: a complete lack of meaningful consequence. Law & Order not only can operate in a static world, it demands it, at least in the sense that the procedure must always be followed. It compensates for this static quality by rotating in new victims, new criminals, and where necessary new detectives, DAs, and experts. We are not here to see meaningful change, we’re here to see someone be good at one job for forty-five minutes. Drama, on the other hand, demands that each moment be contextualised by the moments that lead up to it; even shows that don’t have the dramatic unity of something like The Shield understand this. I think of how The Sopranos allowed itself to build its hatred for the characters, as bemused distance evolved into a deep disgust. I think of the characters in The Wire and LOST almost becoming crushed under their own history. I think of Cowboy Bebop, never letting any single episode work exactly the same as any other and compensating for that with recurring situations and archetypes that grew sharper over time. The Chicago franchise, on the other hand, operates in a perpetual stasis; each episode of each show feels exactly the same, emotionally and thematically, and there’s no sense that the present has been building on the past. It doesn’t matter if characters die or leave or learn anything, and that’s not the sort of effect I chase.