'Chicagoland' finale review: more violence, more Rahm

Violence-focused series revealed a little, frustrated a lot

In a wrap up of his series review, senior writer Rick Kogan explains how the CNN show "Chicagoland" portrays two sides of Chicago and that in one part of the city it really is "the worst of times."

And so it ends, this extraordinary and exasperating, revelatory and redundant, infuriating and ultimately tragic eight-part series "Chicagoland."

For the last two months, CNN has given us our town in mostly unscripted, sometimes contrived and determinedly fast-paced style, an HD feast of Hawks fans and dead bodies, crowded schools and angry parents, optimistic boosters and front-line fighters for social justice.

Peppered with a few interesting characters, few of them sufficiently developed, the series, which concludes Thursday, has firmly focused on violence in the streets and chaos in the public schools. Rahm Emanuel, who is mayor, Liz Dozier, the principal of Fenger high school, and police Superintendent Garry McCarthy have been the series' stars. The mayor has remained ever upbeat ("cheerleader in chief," to use one hackneyed phrase from the show) while the other two have expressed palpable and consistent frustration. All, frankly, have had too much screen time.

It is small solace that the filmmakers did not give us, and the rest of the country, such local clichés as beef sandwiches, deep dish pizza and Ronnie "Woo Woo" Wickers. I don't know if those things were even part of the 1,000-some hours of video shot for the series. I do know that cameras never visited the Billy Goat. They did shoot the mayor and Jimmy Fallon jumping into the frozen lake, and thank God that didn't make it into the final show.

There was much speculation before this series began, and as it has unfolded, that this would be a "puff piece" about the mayor. That was fueled by the close association of some of its producers and super agent Ari Emanuel, the mayor's younger brother.

Whatever the filmmakers' intentions and connections, I do not think that is what they created. For all of Emanuel's world-class-city aspirations, his courting of deep-pocketed CEOs and high-tech entrepreneurs, his high-fiving of kids of color and watching youth basketball games with Isiah Thomas, the series ultimately shows a man sitting on top of a city that he is grasping to understand, a powder keg with a lit fuse. For all the video clips here that could be employed in the mayor's future reelection campaign — and there are plenty — so might any challenger seize upon other clips from the show to tarnish the mayor's image.

In the final episode, there are a few intriguing characters given, typically, little more than cameo camera time, such as Chicago Ideas Week artist-in-residence Hebru Brantley and Billy Corgan, the rock star who brought some wrestlers to Fenger for a raucous and empowering exhibition (I was there), as well as some of the City Council aldermen who are not fans of the mayor. This episode also has handsome footage of the Chicago Marathon, but that is marred by 1) the painful news-clip reminder of the tragedy at last year's Boston Marathon, 2) by learning that the mayor is a triathlete, as he tells us, "What a way to challenge your midlife crisis" and 3) by a superfluous "false alarm" involving a "suspicious woman who got away" during the race.

Juanita Jordan, the ex-wife of a certain former Chicago Bull, makes an appearance, putting her money ($35,000) where her good intentions are in order to help save a job at Fenger, where she went to school in the 1970s. But in one of the most obviously orchestrated segments of the entire series we also watch Dozier try to help a wayward former graduate get back on the right track.

At one point, co-writer/narrator Mark Konkol says, "There is no denying that Mayor Emanuel's first term has ruffled quite a few feathers," and that simply reminds us of how little we have actually seen of those whose feathers have been ruffled — and the lack of depth that such issues as charter schools, unemployment and pensions have received during these last weeks. Instead we saw the inside of Grant Achatz's Alinea restaurant, visited a firefighter at his farm in Marengo and watched the mayor gab with David Letterman.

We do learn that murders in Chicago decreased from 506 in 2012 to 415 in 2013, the year this series was filmed. But violence and death still punctuate newspaper headlines and lead the TV news.

It is, I know, impossible to capture all that Chicago is in eight hours of television, or in the pages of a book or a poem. Hundreds have tried over the centuries and all have failed to get, at best, more than a "big shoulders" snapshot. "Chicagoland," for all its snapshots, may have taken some viewers to places they have never visited and, given the poverty and violence they saw there, probably never will.

It is, I suppose, ironic that the final words we hear in the series come from former Mayor Richard M. Daley: "It's people who make the city better." A blander and more meaningless phrase I cannot recall hearing. More to the point perhaps is something that local poet Marc Smith said in the first episode and repeats here: "Chicagoans do not put up with the bull----."

If this series has taught us anything, it is that Chicagoans do put up with the bull----. Depending on where we live and work, the level of what we put up with can be as benign as a pot hole or as harsh as death. It can also come in the form of joblessness and hopelessness, violence that shadows far too many neighborhoods, budgets that threaten to wreck lives, and the growing gap between those who have and those who need. "Chicagoland" has been a tale of two cities where, for far too many us, this is the worst of times.

rkogan@tribune.com

'Chicagoland'

9 p.m. Thursday; 7 and 10 p.m. Saturday; 9 p.m. and midnight Sunday; 3 a.m. Monday; CNN

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