The Showtime drama “The Chi” returns for a second season Sunday with a new showrunner on board. Ayanna Floyd Davis replaces Elwood Reid and she brings to the table actual lived Chicago experience.
“It was my adopted home” for the better part of the 1990s, she told me, and it’s where she earned a masters degree in film production and screenwriting at Columbia College.
The show’s stories may be universal, but South Side Chicago specifics are what actually give it life. That includes filming locations. And in Season 1, they were largely on the West Side.
Here’s what “The Chi’s” creator Lena Waithe (a South Side native herself) told me about that at the end of last season:
“Apparently I heard that some of our crew was a little nervous to film on the South Side, and I’m like no — the South Side is not a jungle. The thing I hate, we were filming on the West Side because the people on the crew were like, ‘Oh, that’s closer to where the production house (at Cinespace in North Lawndale), we want to be close to that.’ And I’m like, ‘No, we’re going to take the trek to the South Side.’”
And indeed, this year the show seems to go out of its way in the season premiere to spotlight South Side locations. (My colleague Will Lee and I will again be writing about each episode weekly and posting those recaps online every Sunday night.)
As new showrunner, Davis said there was a “very concerted effort to shoot on the South Side. We couldn’t always do it just because of budget or logistics. But we wanted to hit certain landmarks and we really embraced the South Side. Two of our directors are from the South Side, Salli Richardson-Whitfield and Carl Seaton (whose credits also include ‘Chicago P.D.’). Carl and I actually went to Columbia together.”
Davis said she recruited from her alma mater, as well. “I called Columbia and said, ‘Send me all of your interns, graduates, whatever,’ so we had about eight Columbia College grads working on the show in the production office and on set.
“I just wanted to fill the show with that kind of flavor, because I do think it creeps into the creative process.” (The writers room however was based in LA, which is standard for most television shows.)
There are some other noticeable changes in Season 2. Sonja Sohn (as Brandon’s mother Laverne) and Steven Williams (as the gentleman gangster Quentin) are no longer with the show, and a new character further up in the gang hierarchy (played by Curtiss Cook as a man both refined but scarily dangerous) has been added. At one point this season, he goes to visit his boss, who is serving a long prison sentence — a character Davis told me was inspired at least in part by Larry Hoover, the founder of the Gangster Disciples in Chicago, who is serving a life sentence in federal prison.
Though Davis has a co-writing credit on an episode in the first season, her initial involvement was limited. “I was part of the show very early on … so I kind of knew how it was being built, but I had not been there the whole way through. When it got picked up, I was off doing other stuff. And then I got the call for Season 2.”
That meant rewatching the first season several times over to familiarize herself with it. “I was really trying to dig in, for me, what is this show really about? And what is the best version of this show? Because there’s no engine — it’s not a legal show, it’s not a medical show, you don’t have a case of the week. It’s a huge challenge and excruciatingly hard. It’s a slice-of-life about people on the South Side of Chicago and coming in as a new showrunner, I wanted to put my fingerprints on it and leave some DNA on it.”
So what’s ahead for Season 2? A focus on the four stages of black manhood — from young Kevin, to teenage Emmett, to young adult Brandon, to adult Ronnie — and what role fatherhood plays in that.
“If we’re really going to deep dive and get at what the heart of what the show is about,” Davis said, “we have to on some level address fatherhood, which is a major theme this season.”
None of the aforementioned characters had a biological father in their life last year.
“That’s always the question,” Davis said. “When a father is absent, how does one create a father figure? Because you can find father figures in other places. What happens when there’s an absence and you go looking? How does that hole get filled? It doesn’t always get filled in the most positive way. I mean, it can get filled by joining a gang. Or it can be filled by a teacher. There are good and bad ways to fill that void.”
For preteen Kevin, this season is also about coming to grips with some of the violence he committed and witnessed. That’s something the show, for whatever reason, avoided last year and it’s smart for Davis to circle back.
“One thing about Kevin that I felt so strongly about, I really wanted to explore this idea of black boy fragility,” she said. “Tamir Rice and other boys like that come to mind. I really wanted to deal with the trauma that I felt Kevin had been through in Season 1. Little black boys aren’t made of Teflon. They’re kids. They’re children. And no child should shoot someone and move about like nothing happened — nor see someone shot and move about like nothing happened. So I wanted to take a pause and really deal with, what is going on in his little brain? And what goes on with little boys who are living in a certain environment? What goes on in their head? What are their hopes? Do they have fears?”
This year we also see more of Emmett’s stop-start process of growing into a responsible adult with young children he’s responsible for. It’s one of the more delightfully knuckleheaded elements of the new season as he reunites with his estranged father, who is now a very involved parent with his new family. Some of the show’s best moments of absurdist humor come from Emmett’s storylines.
“Emmett’s a bit of a screw-up and I kind of wanted to see why that is,” Davis said. “So I was like, let’s follow the breadcrumbs and introduce Emmett’s father, whose life looks exactly like Emmett’s life is going to look soon but he’s figured it out — maybe late! — but he’s figured it out, or so we think. Sometimes men, you know, that’s what happens: They kind of muck it up with the first kid, and then they remarry and they get it right with their new family. And that’s growth, you can’t penalize people for that — but I also wanted to see the consequences of that, when he wants to tell his son, ‘Father knows best,’ and Emmett is looking at him incredulously like, ‘No, you don’t get to tell me that.’ It’s also going to be a fun relationship and one where you root for them, because Emmett is really looking at himself in about 15 years.”
As for Ronnie, who is in jail awaiting his sentence for the shooting death of Coogie: “His arc this season is redemption. That was a theme we attached to him. In a weird way I feel like Ronnie was a father to the neighborhood, so I wanted to see him kind of reclaim his hero status.”
Davis said she’s less interested in heavy plotting — “I don’t want a lot of shoot-up, bang-bang” — and more interested in a show that is about moments, rather than events.
“When you live in Chicago, there’s a different energy on the South Side in the summer than there is in the winter,” she said. “I was there during the heatwave in the ‘90s that killed all those people. My point is, I’ve spent time with people where one night we’ve gone from house party to house party all night, until four o’clock in the morning. House parties, block parties, running around on the South Side, house to house, eating barbecue in the backyard. That’s very much Chicago summertime and I wanted to capture that. So we do a whole episode where we capture the fun of that.”
This season also includes a humorous conversation between Brandon and Emmett about the difference between gym shoes (athletic shoes of any type) versus sneakers (limited editions that become collectible).
“That was funny, I’m from Ohio so that’s actually a conversation not just in Chicago but in the Midwest period,” Davis said. “Just like Midwest people say pop and other people say soda — I don’t know how that came up but it ended up being an argument in the writers room! I’ve lived in California for 20 years and people always say, ‘What’s pop?’
“So little stuff like that, that’s why it helps to have people in Chicago in the room and those little nuances you can add to the show.”
“The Chi” airs 9 p.m. Sundays on Showtime. Come back each week after the show to read recaps by Nina Metz and Will Lee.