The Problems With NBC’s Chicago Series

Chicago NBCAnd I don’t just mean that they’ve run out of heroic institutions to base spin-offs around. I mean, where else could they go? Chicago Education? Chicago.Gov? Don’t give Dick Wolf any ideas about the last one, because come to think of it a City Hall spinoff actually might work now that they’ve branched into legal.

Chicago Justice, the fourth installment of the Chicago series, launches on March 5, but its premiere is part of a three-hour ‘crossover event’ that begins on Chicago Fire. My husband and I have followed the Chicago series since the premiere of Chicago Fire in 2012, but the premiere of Justice happens to coincide with our decision to break up with one of the Chicago series. As such, it seemed like a good time to check in with the weaknesses of NBC’s flagship institution as a sort of wish list for how things will turn out now that Justice has arrived.

Here are my hopes for the Chicago shows, in no particular order.

1. Slow Down the Crossover Events

I watched all of the Chicago shows until recently and these crossover events were still a burden on me. Why? Because they frequently included Law & Order: SVU, which is not part of the Chicago universe but is a Dick Wolf show on NBC. Now I like SVU, but I don’t watch it regularly. The more you ask me to include it in my regular TV schedule for a crossover event, the more resentful I become. And the more shows you have to include in these events, the more unmanageable they feel. It wouldn’t be such a problem if it really felt like, you know, an event. But the more Chicago goes to this well, the drier it gets. Now it feels like they’re pulling Olivia in for routine cases, and now I have to watch at least two shows just to get the conclusion to what should have been a single episode of television. Not cool. I realize the ratings payoff has been worth it to NBC so far, but if it continues, I can’t guarantee I’m going to care anymore. Which brings me to my next point:

2. No More Spinoffs

Again, I realize the ratings have been worth it to NBC so far to have a set of integrated shows kind of like the Marvel Universe. But it’s only as good as the sum of its parts. And let me break that down for you: I like Chicago Fire, I’m up and down on Chicago PD, and I’m done with Chicago Med. So only one of these shows is consistently good right now. No more spinoffs–at least until you can guarantee the quality or complete the next item on my wish list.

3. Fix Chicago Med or Just Get Rid of It

The characters on every Chicago show are obsessed with being a hero. It’s their defining characteristic. That works on Chicago Fire, where the crew fights their way into dangerous situations and frequently finds themselves fighting obstacles that make their job more difficult. It works on PD, which plays with grey areas of right and wrong (sometimes successfully, sometimes not). Med is the only one that gets it wrong in every episode. Let’s get one thing straight: these people are terrible doctors. Somewhere, someone decided that the only way a doctor can be heroic is if they’re saving a life. No matter what. So we repeatedly have doctors defying everything–even laws and the wishes of their patients–in order to save a life. Did you catch that? They don’t listen to their patients or the law. That’s supposed to make them renegades. It just makes them terrible people. Remember ERER understood that a DNR order was legally binding. ER managed to get drama from the situation without having doctors outright defy the law (to my best recollection, anyway). If Chicago Med is going to continue, it should look to Code Black as a model. Code Black is a current medical show that perfectly manages to create drama and has good doctors who, you know, do the best for their patients while actually listening to them.

Also, the characters on Chicago Med are terrible except for Goodwin, Maggie, Reese, and Charles. Choi is almost there. Everyone else either needs image rehab or a swift exit.

4. Don’t Abandon Your Own Plotlines

Watching Dawson fight to become a female firefighter on Chicago Fire was thrilling. But once she achieved her goal, she adopted a baby and bumped herself back to ambulance. To compensate, they introduced a new female firefighter character, but still: why did we get so invested in Dawson’s struggle if she was going to abandon it so unceremoniously? Then she and Casey came together to form a family to fight to keep the foster kid. Once that struggle was resolved, it’s like the showrunners realized how difficult it was going to be to have a kid around, so suddenly the birth father showed up and the kid went away. Part of this is just television in a Shondaland landscape: when the cliffhanger is the thing, the stakes have to constantly be moving. And credit where it’s due, the actors on Fire sell the awkward transitions. But it does start to feel like ‘what’s the point?’ Why am I going to get invested in this plotline when it most likely won’t last beyond sweeps?

5. Admit That It’s All About the Ladies, Then Stop Undermining Them

Mariska Hargitay had a huge impact on Dick Wolf. Remember the original Law & Order? There was always a female ADA who was there to be idealistic but mostly just pretty? Part of why that role was such a revolving door was that the actresses were frustrated they couldn’t do anything. Then Mariska was cast as Olivia Benson on SVU, and she gradually took over the entire show. Wolf seemed to learn his lesson. Now the Chicago series is stacked with strong female characters. These characters are the best parts of the shows. On Fire, Casey is bland and Severide is a mess: the two men who are supposed to carry the show aren’t actually that interesting. It’s Dawson who does all the heavy lifting. I would watch ten scenes with Sylvie and Stella before I’d watch one of Otis and Cruz dude-ing out. PD is definitely Voight’s show, but can you imagine it without Lindsay, Burgess, or Trudy? I don’t even know the names of the male detectives because they’re all interchangeable. On Med, the ladies are the only ones who kept me watching for a while.

The problem is that even though Wolf has made huge strides, he still thinks of female characters in outdated terms. Watching Burgess go from rookie to detective has been great. But the show keeps sidelining her with ludicrous romantic plotlines. She fell for Ruzek even though he was engaged to someone else, then eventually got engaged to him herself despite the warning signs that he’s a commitment-phobe, and they broke up. Then she rebounded with her partner for her second super unprofessional romance in a row. And the second she finally got on Voight’s team she started making dewy eyes in Ruzek’s direction. All these lapses in judgment undermine her credibility. Wolf did the same thing to Dawson in the early days of Fire: she pined for Casey even though he was engaged. She dated someone else in the firehouse, then when Casey showed interest in her she dumped the other guy. And they did it with Lindsay on PD to a smaller degree by having her briefly date Severide before hooking up with Halstead on her own show instead. Reese is the Burgess of Med, and in the first season she spent an inordinate amount of time dating the awkward lab tech. Meanwhile, Med‘s Dr. Manning is ping-ponging between two doctors and losing all her dignity in the process. On Fire, Stella seems to be holding a candle for Severide and Sylvie is becoming more and more frantic about her love life as time goes on. Even Trudy got married off.

The men of the Chicago universe are allowed to be stoic and brave. The women can be those things too, but not without craving romance. And when it comes to those romances, the men always have the upper hand in holding onto their dignity. Come on, Dick Wolf, the ladies are the best part of these shows. They deserve to be treated with more respect.


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