“The Chi” Sets the Bar for 2018

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Lena Waithe earned her history-making Emmy Award for co-writing “Thanksgiving” with “Master of None” creator Aziz Ansari. The episode (based on her own experience) centered on her character coming home and coming out.

It is no surprise then that Waithe comes home once again for her new Showtime series “The Chi.” The story follows a handful of south side Chicagoans across the intergenerational spectrum from pre-teen to old age. (The pilot officially airs January 7, 2018 but is available to stream now.) Skip the trailer and jump right into the show.

Unlike Showtime’s current female-fronted series “SMILF” (the worth-watching Frankie Shaw-created comedy featuring Rosie O’Donnell, Connie Britton, Raven Goodwin, Samara Weaving and Shaw herself), men are at forefront of “The Chi.”

However, there looks to be ample room for the women to outshine them. I trust the mothers, love interests and exes we meet in the pilot—Yolonda Ross, Tiffany Boone and the inevitable scene-stealer Sonja Sohn among them—will be just fine in the capable hands of Waithe.

The men do shine though. Jason Mitchell (who appeared in Straight Outta Compton and, more recently, Netflix’s Mudbound) does wonders in the role of the young adult Brandon. He delivers a moving speech in the latter half of the episode I must leave unspoiled. The range of his performance in this single airing alone is enough to kickstart his Emmy campaign early.

Younger roles of pre-teen Kevin and teenager Emmett are embodied with genuine talent by Alex Hibbert and Jacob Latimore, respectively. Both show promise beyond their years. The showstopper of this series, though, is the work put forth by Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine (“Heroes” and Queen of Katwe).

As the weathered, raspy-voiced Ronnie, Mwine serves up equal parts heart and heartbreak in every scene. One can only expect, after the events that befall his character in the opening of this critical-darling-bound drama, he has nowhere to go but up. I fully expect the seasoned actor (and playwright) to rise to the occasion.

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Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine and Lena Waithe photos by Mathieu Young and Todd MacMillan/SHOWTIME

Waithe made history at the 2017 Emmys as the first African-American woman to win for comedy writing. That same night series creator Donald Glover became the first African-American to win for comedy series directing.

I will draw the comparison to Glover’s “Atlanta”—not because it uses the setting as the title (or “as a character” to follow the trope)—because I believe “Atlanta” was the best show of 2017. It had many solid performances (by Zazie Beetz, Brian Tyree Henry, Lakeith Stanfield and Glover), a vibe of something new/fresh/different as well as a subtle cool about itself.

The pilot of “The Chi” doubles down on those common threads. Here’s hoping its hand actually follows suit. I will definitely be watching.

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