Rahm Emanuel is exactly the kind of guy who can ground a reality TV show. He's intense, brash, self-confident up to and beyond the point of arrogance, profane, and unflinching under the camera's eye.
But he's not the most magnetic character in Chicagoland, CNN's new documentary miniseries about the city Emanuel runs, which premieres March 6. Instead, there's the compassionate but tough Elizabeth Dozier, principal of the Southside's Fenger High. Dozier worries not just about raising her school's dismal graduation rate, but also about whether her students will make it through high school without losing their lives.
And there's Garry McCarthy, the superintendent of Chicago's police department, a man who sets about making Chicago safer with a calm Everycop exterior that cracks just a bit now and then.
There's also a dedicated and weary emergency room doctor who tries to put the wounded back together again while remaining intact himself. There's a thoughtful high school senior who's attended the funerals of many friends. And there's Asean Johnson, a 9-year-old whose fiery, articulate speeches against the mayor's plan to shutter dozens of Chicago's public schools make him a rallying point for those fighting the closures.
Elizabeth Dozier (left); Garry McCarthy (right). Images courtesy of CNN
The real star of Chicagoland, though, is the city itself, in all its broad-shouldered, brawling, chest-thumping glory and pain. The executive producers, Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin, along with Laura Michalchyshyn and Robert Redford, are the same Peabody-winning team that made Brick City, a series about Newark. In this show, shot over several months in 2013, they convey Chicago's restless energy with electric visual intensity. They capture the crowds celebrating the Blackhawks championship; the swaying throngs at a huge outdoor house-music concert; the kids from Fenger bouncing on the dance floor at their prom. The images conjure up a city of defiant pride and ambition, as well as lingering doubt and insecurity.
You can't reduce a city to a miniseries, of course. And Chicagoland hits some false notes. The voice-over narration, read in a broad Chicago accent, can sound slick and formulaic. Some of the situations seem awkwardly staged, as when Dozier hangs out with Billy Dec, a restaurant owner and promoter whom she hopes can help her school raise the money it needs.
Still, the filmmakers capture countless moments of true emotion and revealing action. On an Englewood street corner, we witness the fear that Chicago kids feel about having to walk through hostile gang territory if their local schools are closed. Inside the sealed world of Emanuel's SUV, as he chews gum and makes small talk, we see the pressure getting to him, even as he stubbornly maintains his façade. When Google's Eric Schmidt visits a public school and eagerly touts the advantages of his company's products to students dependent on corporate largesse for a better education, the calculus of compromise is exposed.
This may be the greatest success of Chicagoland's creators: they make policy decisions thrilling. When Karen Lewis, head of the teachers' union, says that a budget makes a moral statement about a city's priorities, those words don't seem like hyperbole. The decisions made by Emanuel and others are a matter, quite literally, of life or death. Which will it be?