things you should know about cnn’s “chicagoland”


tonight at 10/9c, cnn will air the first episode of their original series, “chicagoland.”  because my employer was involved with some of the filming for this 8-part documentary, this past tuesday night i was able to attend a special debut showing at the bank of america theater in chicago.  based on the first episode that i saw, i would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in an insider’s view to how a modern american city works (or, sometimes, doesn’t).

their crews were given access to intimate & uncensored moments we members of the public rarely get to see, if ever: with the mayor, with the principal of a school which needs metal detectors, with the police chief, with grieving families, and—in the episode’s most haunting moment—with 10-year-old students who are literally scared for their lives just walking to school.

but, as someone who loves this city dearly, i want to give all of you not from chicago a viewer’s guide to the things that the cameras didn’t capture, or were edited out, or just plain weren’t explained…

though the voice might come off as a bit cliché, the producers were not without good reason in their choice of narrator.  he has a thick & masculine chicago accent, but it’s not a voice actor.  it’s mark konkol, a pulitzer prize-winning journalist (formerly of the sun-times and now with DNAinfo chicago).  that being said, the script konkol was given to read doesn’t exactly make him come off as an unbiased voice of reason.  if i was a producer, i probably would’ve just given rick kogan a few glasses of whiskey & let him narrate whatever the hell he wanted to, but since i’m not, you’d do well to drink in konkol’s mellifluous voice but mostly gloss over the content of what he’s saying.

the one bit of narration that you really do need to pay attention to is the part which identifies the board of chicago public schools as being hand-picked by mayor rahm emanuel.  that is both true and an incredibly unfair understatement.  a big part of the narrative tension in episode 1 (for those who didn’t follow the story as it actually unfolded last year) is whether or not the board will vote to close an unprecedented 50+ schools in the city (as rahm wanted).  the massive rallies downtown against the mayor’s plan, and the passion exhibited in hearings across the city really did happen just as the episode portrays them.  the people of the city were genuinely furious, and they took every opportunity to let their mayor know it.  but that’s also just good television.  despite the incredible unpopularity of his plan, there was never really much doubt that rahm would get his way in the end.  the cps board does what the mayor wants.  that’s just how it is here.

in one of the more ridiculous moments of episode 1, the narration suggests that there might be “something in the water” in chicago as an explanation of rampant gang activity, from the days of al capone to the current clusterfuck that includes over 800 cliques.  chicago’s gang situation in 2014 not only has nothing to do with its legendary lawlessness during prohibition, you might even view these gang eras as polar opposites.  today, poverty & poor schools & hypersegregation & broken families & political powerlessness are behind gang growth which is radically decentralized.  if you want a modern parallel to capone, you might do better to look at the fifth floor of city hall: home to the mayor.  what capone had in common with both the daleys & rahm is that they were/are men with unchecked power who use it to impose their will.  true: the former was never elected.  but if you think “precinct captain” or “ward boss” is just an honorary title for get-out-the-vote guys, you’d do well to read royko’s boss or watch the starz tv series “boss” and learn what those men really do.

knowing that the mayor is an unstoppable force in this town, you can’t really blame 3rd-grader asean johnson for shouting into a microphone at a rally to save his school that rahm doesn’t care about his classmates.  he’s 9.  less excusable is the chicago teachers union head, karen lewis, calling rahm “the murder mayor” (merely one of her more theatrical moments which did nothing to endear chicagoans to the teachers’ point of view).  many, many chicagoans have disagreed with the political tactics, and even goals, of our most powerful mayors.  but it would be disingenuous to imply that those men didn’t love their city.  rahm, like the daleys before him, is a complicated leader.  just this month, esquire published an excellent profile of him.  he’s pissed off plenty of people in this town, and they’ve often been justified in their anger toward him, from ben joravsky’s never-ending crusade against TIFs to the city’s librarians outraged at his funding cuts.  but you also cannot deny the role that he (and richard m. daley) played in chicago coming in 9th of 27 global cities as ranked by pricewaterhousecoopers.  the thing no one has been able to figure out is how to match the mayor’s power & prowess—let alone do so without coming off like a screaming lunatic.

but perhaps the best compliment i can give to the “chicagoland” team is that while sitting in that theater i thought to myself, “8 parts? they could easily have made twice as many episodes.”  because for all my quibbling—and earnest desire for more depth, more time spent on the subject(s) of this documentary—the truth is that this crew has captured something extraordinary on film.  political agendas & machinations aside, it’s the human drama, the personal/firsthand stories, and the struggles common to all 21st century american cities that i think make the series a worthy one—and maybe even a great invitation to dive deeper into this “last of great american cities,” the city which so “amused, intrigued, outraged, enthralled, and exasperated” one of its great reporters (not to mention its millions of citizens).



  • I love the “something in the water” explanation and how versatile it is to explain just about everything. Thanks for this great endorsement yet objective view of the documentary. I’m currently obsessed with NBC’s Chicago Fire and Chicago PD. Watching this documentary, I hope I get a more realistic view of the city. Not that I’m really paying attention to where those firemen are while they’re being all firemanly.

  • Melissa says:

    Great post, J. Although I have to confess that I was rolling right along with the idea of loving Chicago-in-spite-of-or-maybe-kinda-even-because-of all of its flaws and complexity, right up until that Mailer quote, which felt like smacking into a big brick wall of pretension and B.S. Imagine the annoyance you feel when people from San Francisco try to tell you it’s the greatest city in the galaxy and that anyone who doesn’t live there is a fool and obviously doesn’t comprehend how great it is? That’s approximately my response to that quote. All I’m saying is that if I ever have time to watch said documentary, which sounds genuinely fascinating, I’m going to try to forget that Normal Mailer ever said anything about your city. Deal?

    • Jason Sommer jason says:

      yeah, i know i was reaching with that. honestly, i don’t even know what that mailer quote really means. we’ve just got a chip on our broad shoulders about forever being “the second city.” but consider it stricken from the record.

    • I realized I am one of those San Francisco people during AWP. My friend who used to live in Seattle kept talking about how much she missed the city and pointed out things and then said “That’s so Seattle.” To which I replied (over and over again) “Oh yeah, well you should see San Francisco.” :-)

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