Showtime's new series The Chi opens with Coogie — a gorgeous kid with big hair, a pink headband, and a backpack covered in fuchsia flowers — biking around town listening to Chance the Rapper's "All We Got." He shoots some baskets. He bikes circles around a tough-looking motorcyclist at a red light. He even tries to race him. Director Rick Famuyiwa shoots this stuff like it's lyric poetry; he also knows how to make us feel that innocent high wear off. When Coogie — played by Jahking Guillory — pulls off his headphones to negotiate with the proprietors of the "77th Mart" for snacks, we lose the music too. When he rides down an alley to feed beef jerky to a hungry dog that isn't his, the realities of his life, and the forms of compensatory kindness he's invented, snap into focus. And when — bidding the dog goodbye — he stumbles on a man lying on a street corner under a spreading pool of blood, we see Coogie's gaze drift to his shoes, then his necklace, and then his face. He takes the shoes. He takes the necklace. And he runs.
It's a compact sequence that perfectly illustrates the project of The Chi, which premieres Sunday. This is The Wire if you reverse the relationship between the residents and police. It puts the story before the anthropology, the people before the journalistic exposé, the banal before the sensational. Creator Lena Waithe — who won an Emmy for the exceptional "Thanksgiving" episode of Master of None — has said she wanted to make a show about Chicago from "a very human and grounded and honest perspective" that "put some humanness behind the headlines." The Chi offers exactly this: It examines, with interest and care, how kids and adults live and joke and get crushes and moon around, even (or especially) with violence slicing at the streets around them.
This is obviously something Moonlight did too. As if to drive home that parallel, The Chi's most surprising subplot features Kevin, a kid trying out for the school play because his crush wants him to. Kevin is played by Alex Hibbert, the star of Moonlight's first, most devastating act. Kevin's winsome sullenness almost threatens to overshadow his much-older sister Keisha (Birgundi Baker, funnier in this role than she has any right to be). Keisha, meanwhile, is sneaking around with Emmett (Jacob Latimore), an "entrepreneur" obsessed with status symbols who recently found out he's a father and isn't happy about it. Emmett's mother Jada (Yolonda Ross) is an elder-care nurse who tolerates his girlfriends, but bemusedly shuts down his lazy assumption that she'll take care of his son.
Ross' triumph as a no-nonsense mom who refuses to make mothering her life made me realize that one of The Chi's more singular triumphs — as anthropology and entertainment both — is its rich variety of mothers. For all The Wire's fine work sketching out the devastating effects of the carceral state on a black community, it wasn't much interested in the women left behind to run things. Waithe's project leans into their stories: Besides Ross, there's Coogie's mom Laverne (the remarkable Sonja Sohn), a depressive collapsing under the weight of her life. There's Ethel, a cantankerous old lady who at one point draws a shotgun on a police officer in defense of her grandson, Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) — a middle-aged deadbeat with a romantic soul who becomes one of The Chi's central characters. There's Ronnie's ex Tracy (Tai Davis), a bereaved mother hell-bent on revenge.
The Chi is a sprawling ensemble piece whose horizons keep expanding. To the extent that it has a protagonist, it's Coogie's older brother Brandon (Jason Mitchell). A line cook at a fancy restaurant, he eventually wants to open his own with his girlfriend Jerrika (Tiffany Boone).
I won't go into specific plot points; suffice it to say that Waithe structures the show so as to gradually make the viewer entirely complicit in the world view that led Coogie to take those sneakers off a dying man. Tanya Hamilton directs "Quaking Grass," the fourth episode, by swirling around a central event in spirals — not for tension, since it's fairly clear what happened — but to suggest that a tap is running and a bad story is circling the drain in faster and tighter loops. It's a directorial strategy that makes you realize that you might want a particular character to die, just because that person's survival makes things so much messier. In other words, you end up firmly enmeshed in the complicated nest of incentives the characters of The Chi inhabit. If The Wire surveilled its characters, The Chi sticks you in the story with them.
This show is a jewel. Watch it.