"Ugh, everything is gone!" the best-selling novelist John Green laments as he and Mark Bazer, co-host of the new WTTW series "My Chicago," drive through Chicago neighborhoods the writer once called home.
Green, who lives in Indianapolis these days, is only 36, but he has the soul of an agreeably grumpy octogenarian, and that dry humor and willingness to open up about his insecurities give the interview a wonderfully unexpected tang: "Why did you take me on this terrible, terrible tour of my past?"
I'm not sure the conversation would have been half as distinctive had it taken place in a TV studio. But stick two strangers in a car, and suddenly there's an intimacy — sometimes comfortable, sometimes not — enforced within its glass-and-steel enclosure.
That's the clever insight leveraged by "My Chicago," which nonetheless has the feel of a work in progress. The first of six episodes debuts 8:30 p.m. Friday, and it is a premise with real potential. The task for producer David Manilow (the creative force behind WTTW's long-running "Check, Please!" restaurant review series) is to seek out a more ambitious visual language and give this thing a bit of style. For a show that promises to reveal the city through the eyes of its guests, it is a weirdly uncinematic project. Right now, it's not much to look at.
Hosts Bazer (of the monthly "Interview Show" at The Hideout) and Odette Yousef (a reporter for WBEZ-FM 91.5) take turns driving a Chicago celebrity — perhaps "Chicago notable" is a better descriptive — around town in a midsize Volkswagen SUV. The premiere features Bazer with Green, and then Yousef with Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke.
The show shares plenty of DNA with the consistently charming Jerry Seinfeld Web series "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee," and it is an instructive comparison. As you watch "My Chicago," it becomes evident just how important cinematography is to the success of the Seinfeld series, with its almost fetishistic attention to detail, of footage of the car in motion or a freshly made cappuccino. The images are filmed as works of art, with just enough music spliced in to carve the conversational meanderings into discrete, digestible moments.
This is "My Chicago's" weak spot, both for the ear and the eye. You don't have to drown the thing in music, but the interviews probably need a few aural punctuation marks. Landmarks are pointed out, drive-by style. As it is, the show doesn't look like anyone's Chicago when all you see is the blur of asphalt and storefronts as the car zooms through the city.
What's needed is a mindset more attuned to the visual nature of the project. ("Check, Please!" accomplishes this with carefully edited packages that capture the look of a restaurant and its offerings).
This is important because otherwise "My Chicago" is mainly reliant on a two-shot of people sitting in a car, talking but rarely making eye contact.
The car never stops. There is no screeching to a halt to get out and look at anything or ponder a memory. (Let me clarify: The car does stop eventually. It seems there is some agreed upon destination, but because it is not revealed until the end, the drive itself has an aimless feel to it.)
This is the kind of show that lives or dies on the talents of its filmmakers. It needs someone with an eye for the idiosyncrasies of Chicago's architecture and neighborhoods. Someone to capture the glimpses of its beauty and lack thereof. In close-up. Better to linger over these locations for a moment or two as the guest continues a train of thought.
The interview content needs to be indelible, as well. This car-bound format is uniquely reliant on the willingness of its guests to riff and ramble extemporaneously. Justice Burke is far too controlled to play along in the first episode (and Yousef far too polite to nudge her), and her segment quickly morphs into a well-intentioned PSA about the Special Olympics, which she had a hand in founding.
It feels like a bait-and-switch when the pair stop to pick up WNBA player Elena Delle Donne and Yousef says: "Elena, can I ask you about being global ambassador for the Special Olympics?" No, that didn't sound canned at all.
Burke and Donne give valuable and worthwhile (if rather generic) information. But does the conversation make for an engaging interview? Does it reveal anything interesting about their personalities or the city itself? No. No, it doesn't. It is a segment better suited to a local newscast, not a quirky bit of programming cooked up by a public television channel that has shown a willingness to experiment.
If Burke is in the car, I want to hear her talk about being married to a longtime power player like Ald. Ed Burke. Or her recollections of contentious showdowns while sitting on the bench. In my head, I envision Burke's life as a less-glossy version of "The Good Wife." Instead the interview feels as though Yousef got roped into chauffeur duty and is simply there to make polite conversation.
Which brings up another point about "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee." Each of Seinfeld's guests is a performer. They understand the game. They understand the onus is to entertain. For "My Chicago" to work, it will need to be more diligent in selecting guests who fit the show's specific needs. That doesn't mean big personalities, necessarily.
Green, just named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world, was an inspired choice. He is terrifically deadpan and murmurs thoughts about mortality in between moments of shocked outrage at how the city has changed since he moved away.
"How could they close the Lincoln?" he grouses as he and Bazer pass the recently shuttered North Side restaurant, home of the Lincoln Lodge performance space where many Chicago comics and performers got their start.
"Why wasn't there a crowdfunding campaign?" he says, and his outrage seems both jokey and sincere. "I wasn't even contacted! I would have bought it!"
Says the guy whose most successful novel, "The Faults in Our Stars," has been turned in to a movie starring Shailene Woodley that opens in June: "I would have given it all up to become a manager of the Lincoln."