Chicago had an image problem long before January 2013, when 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was gunned down in the South Side neighborhood of Kenwood. Because Pendleton had performed at President Obama’s inauguration a week earlier, and because it was already the 42nd Chicago homicide that year, the national media fixated on the tragedy. The city didn’t have a violence problem, but an “epidemic.”
Meanwhile, two New York filmmakers, Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin (Brick City), were casting about for their next project. “After the teacher strike in the fall of 2012 and the spike in homicides, we said, ‘Wow, all these issues that are in play across America are reaching a boiling point in Chicago,’ ” recalls Levin. “All eyes were pointed in [Chicago’s] direction.”
It took them only six months to pitch a docuseries about Chicago to CNN, secure two megawatt producers (Robert Redford and Laura Michalchyshyn), and sell Rahm Emanuel on the idea of letting them trail him as the cameras rolled. Emanuel agreed—he must have known he’d end up looking good—and by March 2013, the directors had set up camp for nine months in the Loop.
When choosing Chicagoland’s narrator, Levin and Benjamin could have asked Oprah, Ira Glass, or even a stately Steppenwolf vet. Instead, they chose the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and DNAinfo.com writer at large Mark Konkol, who grew up in South Holland and sounds like it. “Chicago has always given voice to the common man and woman,” Levin says. “It’s earthy, it’s not pretentious, it’s authentic, and we decided that if we could find a voice that had those qualities, it would make the series unlike everything else you see on TV.”
The series, which premieres on March 6, comes off like a love letter to both Emanuel, whom the pair followed closely as he prepared to close 54 public schools, and Garry McCarthy, superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, with whom Levin and Benjamin had become friendly while filming their 2009 series Brick City. “[McCarthy’s] life is a seven-day-a-week effort to figure out the magic sauce that can reduce [crime],” says Benjamin.
And while it will be tempting for anyone who has lived here longer than nine months to write off Chicagoland as myopic, there are times when the series shines. Such as when Dominique Brooks, a sixth grader at Manierre Elementary School in Old Town, talks about the gang lines she’d have to cross on her way to Jenner Academy if the mayor shut down her school. “We can’t even walk that way. . . . We’ll just get jumped on. I’m just so scared,” she says with tears in her eyes. (Manierre was one of five schools rescued from the list.)
Or when Liz Dozier, principal of Fenger High School in Roseland, where honor student Derrion Albert’s brutal beating was caught on video in 2009, tries to uncover the details of a shooting on schools grounds. “You learn what it means to be in an urban school like this and to be on the frontline,” says Levin. “You’re a social worker. You’re a doctor. You’re a detective.”
Those are poignant moments, to be sure. But don’t expect any big surprises in Chicagoland. Public education and safety, the two controversial through lines of the series, have more sides than can be captured in eight hour-long segments (especially when some of that airtime shows Emanuel yukking it up courtside at a Bulls game or fedora-toting restaurateur Billy Dec in the club). It’s impossible for a nine-month tour of duty to capture a city’s ongoing narrative. Which is perhaps why at presstime the last four episodes were still being edited. Even Chicagoland’s producers seem unable to figure out exactly what Chicago’s story should be.