‘The Red Line’ to ‘The Chi’: Why Chicago Is TV’s Favorite Locale for Race-Related Dramas
Chicago is known for many things, from some of the most memorable architecture and landscapes in the country to a bustling restaurant scene local foodies will go to the mattresses to defend. But it also has a long and active history of systemic racism, classism, and political corruption. While it’s not the most dangerous city in the U.S., these facts are abundantly clear to anyone who watches scripted TV. And audiences will soon get more reminders of those facts through that medium.
On Sunday, CBS premieres the limited series The Red Line, which uses the name of part of the city’s public transportation system—and a term indicative of a racial divide throughout much of North America—to exemplify what happens when an inexperienced white cop (Noel Fisher) mistakenly shoots a black doctor (Corey Reynolds). Later this year, USA will premiere Pearson, a spin-off of its long-running legal drama Suits, which stars Gina Torres as a “powerhouse lawyer … [who] enters the dirty world of Chicago politics.”
These shows join current programming like NBC procedurals Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D., sometimes quirky legal dramas like CBS’s The Good Wife and its spinoff, CBS All Access’s The Good Fight, and deeply personal prestige dramas like Showtime’s The Chi, which creator Lena Waithe based on her own experiences of life in the Windy City’s South Side. Soon, actor Michael B. Jordan and screenwriter Peter Moffat will premiere AMC’s 61st Street, which is described as “a murder mystery, courtroom drama and an examination of race in America wrapped up into one,” and set in … you guessed it. Proving that this association is nothing new, Hulu has teamed with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio to adapt The Devil in the White City, author Erik Larson’s story of serial killer H. H. Holmes, set amid the bustling 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. While not all of these shows may film in the city full time, they share a certain vision of the setting.
“There are a lot of divides in Chicago; there are divides of class and socio-economic background, there are divides of gender and sexuality, there are divides of race,” says Caitlin Parrish, who created The Red Line with writing partner Erica Weiss. “Historically, in our opinion, the one that is most visibly apparent is the divide between the predominantly affluent and white North Side and the predominately less-affluent and person-of-color South Side. And you can’t really talk about any of the divides in Chicago without acknowledging the tremendous racial inequality.”
The writers use almost every inch of space in their limited series to drive this point home, be it the victim’s white widower (Noah Wyle) fully embracing support from the city’s LGBTQI community and their history of being persecuted, but not understanding why their black teenage daughter (Aliyah Royale) would feel the need to meet her birth mother after losing her only parent of color. It’s seen in Emayatzy Corinealdi’s self-made political hopeful, a South Side success story who is gaining ground on the incumbent but needs the backing of a North Side world she both mocks and doesn’t know how to navigate. And it’s in the complicated, divisive subgroups that make up the Chicago Police Department itself.
It’s also part of the Red Line writers room. Both Weiss and Parrish, who are graduates of The Theatre School at DePaul University and came up through the city’s esteemed theater scene, are white. The other writers make the staff more reflective of Chicago’s racial demographic. Weiss says while they are “very conscious of our position of privilege and that we are not the most likely writing team to be taking on this subject matter,” they also wanted to hire people who will both teach them what they grew up not having to know and “who will correct you, in a way.”
With Pearson, the Chicago bureaucracy is seen from another angle. Torres’ lead, Jessica Pearson, is a cutthroat and formidable adversary in six-inch heels. Although she’s working alongside the mayor, she’s also an outsider to this world and is learning its history along with the audience. Daniel Arkin, who co-created Pearson with Aaron Korsh, says they considered other locales for the next chapter in the Suits universe—including Washington D.C., which was nixed because of the similarities to ABC’s recently wrapped Scandal—but settled on Chicago because it’s “a very one-party town.”
“It’s a very democratic and progressive place, politically, and also has a reputation for rough-and-tumble politics and back-door politics,” Arkin says. He stresses that his show won’t be about politics inasmuch as it’s about “relationships and the game-playing and the power struggles and deal-making.” He says he likes the setting because “what Chicago does do, socially, is it gives you a complete cross-section of socio-economics, it gives you an uptown/downtown quality, it gives you race relations and it gives you the deal-making of politics.”
Korsh adds that he understands the significance of doing a story set around local politics with a racially diverse cast in a city known for political corruption that also just made headlines for electing a black woman as mayor, but that “I don’t know if we set out to do it for its importance … [especially] because it gave us an opportunity to look at what it would be like to live in that city, not just from racial mixes but also socio-economic mixes.”
The fictionalization of real life in the Second City also spurs reactions from its inhabitants. The Chicago Film Office declined to comment for this story when asked how it feels about fielding permits for production crews that will bring in revenue but also may not share the most glistening portrayals of their neighborhoods with the outside world. Instead, a spokesperson pointed toward a press release that bragged of having 520 film and TV productions shoot there in 2018 and noted that the industry has brought $2.6 billion into the Illinois city’s economy since 2011.
But sometimes even those working on these productions come in harboring a stigma. When asked for his perspective, native Chicagoan and Sun-Times journalist Evan F. Moore recalled an incident where documentary filmmakers asked to interview him in a “relatively safe” part of the South Side. He also came of age not long after the release of the John Hughes films like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, teen comedies that show a decidedly white and suburban experience of Chicago. He tells Fortune shows that try to find the city’s unique voices mean “people are starting to see the city for what it is” and “it’s not just one point of view of people who are invested in the city and involved in the city.” But he is also weary of what he calls “parachute journalism” or the need to drop in just for a buzzy or extreme story.
This is something even those who are creating series about the city grapple with.
“When I see someone who’s depicting Chicago as a war zone or buying into the narrative that Chicago is being supported by the national government, that makes me very angry because it tells me that the people creating that show don’t care about getting it right and don’t really understand the city or its people or its history,” says The Red Line’s Parrish. “To love a city, as Erica and I love Chicago, is to confront its uglier stories but also to see it fully and to know what’s beautiful and worth taking part in.”