It’s a bright Saturday afternoon in the fall, and extras in business attire are puttering along the sidewalk as if it were just another weekday. A black SUV halts in front of City Hall and out steps the Chicago-born actress Jennifer Beals in a crisp police uniform, trailed by a cluster of cameramen filming a scene for the new television cop drama The Chicago Code (premiering February 7th on Fox).
But this crew isn’t grabbing a few downtown exteriors to slap together with scenes shot in L.A. studios, as was the case with the show ER. The expensive equipment currently lining LaSalle Street has been working overtime for the past six months, filming everywhere from Millennium Park to rough parts of Austin and the South Side. The goal: to craft a realistic portrait of Chicago for TV.
Shawn Ryan, 44, the show’s Rockford-born creator, whose gritty police series The Shield was a cable hit, is aware locals may be dubious. “I understand the feeling that Hollywood isn’t interested in delving too far into the city,” he says, perched on the marble stairs inside City Hall. “But we’re shooting the city in a way that no other show or movie has.”
The Chicago Code stars Beals (The L Word) as the city’s first female police superintendent, Jason Clarke (Public Enemies) as a tough Polish cop, Matt Lauria (Friday Night Lights) as his eager young partner, and Delroy Lindo (Malcolm X) as a shady alderman. Flashbacks explore the characters’ connections to Chicago history, from the origins of the Cabrini-Green housing projects to the city’s relationship with organized crime. Over the first season, the story unfolds in Chinatown and Boystown—neighborhoods rarely chosen by location scouts. “When I pitched it, I viewed it as a police show. Now I view it as a city show through the lens of police officers,” Ryan explains.
In the pilot, local details are spot on: the street sweeper truck in the background; the familiar back porches of three-flats. References to baseball allegiances feel natural. And to keep the police action true to life, the show’s consultant, an active Chicago homicide detective named John Folino Jr., parses every script for inaccuracies that would make real cops cringe.
With plot lines highlighting suspicious construction deals and police sit-downs with gang leaders, one might mistake the show for a ripped-from-the-headlines procedural—or an indictment of corruption in the vein of HBO’s The Wire. But Ryan is quick to say that he’s not looking to denigrate the city—or state, which provided generous tax breaks to help make the show a reality: “We are showing the city’s underbelly. But it’s fictional. I look at the city with a great deal of fondness.”
That affection comes from his years traveling back and forth to Chicago from his childhood home in Rockford. Ryan recalls attending hockey camps led by former Blackhawk Tony Esposito and playing in sports tournaments throughout the city and suburbs. He also remembers feeling like a bit of an outsider. “In the same way that Chicago can get overlooked by New York, Chicago tends to look down on Rockford,” he says.
That underdog aura fuels his drive to share an authentic portrayal of the Midwest with national audiences. “What I bring is the eye of an outsider with the heart of an insider,” he explains. “There’s definitely a New York– L.A. lean to what gets made [by Hollywood]. I think it took someone who was really committed to doing it here. It’s easy for a big production like Transformers 3 to come here and destroy downtown. But that’s only one aspect of the city.”