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TELEVISION REVIEW

‘Chicago Code’ makes for a promising rookie

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / February 7, 2011

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‘The Chicago Code’’ is a really good cop drama right off the bat, with greasier perps, more swerving car chases, and better bulletproof-vest action than you’ll find on “Southland,’’ or “Blue Bloods,’’ or “Detroit 1-8-7.’’ It’s an ambitious, energetic portrait of law enforcement steeped in the grunge and idiom of an American city.

Whether “The Chicago Code,’’ which premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 25, will develop into a great cop drama is unclear. But the potential is there, for sure, by the end of the third episode. The show is an intelligent addition to the Fox lineup, with both the broad canvas of “The Wire’’ and the street procedural of “NYPD Blue’’ in its DNA. Created by Shawn Ryan of “The Shield,’’ which was a great cop show, “The Chicago Code’’ already has an addictive urgency and an engaging number of corruption plots that reach into different corners of Chicago’s power structure.

The show also benefits from a breakthrough performance by Jason Clarke, the Australian actor who played the politician brother on the Bulger-inspired Showtime series “Brotherhood.’’ Clarke adopts a Chicago accent, largely with success, to play Jarek Wysocki, a legendarily difficult but highly effective cop. The imposing, strong-chinned actor gives his eyes a crazed intensity as he makes Jarek both irritatingly hyped up, admirably fast-thinking, endearingly sloppy, and impossible to ignore. Jarek growls at his colleagues, but he has their grudging respect. Unlike “The Shield’’ and other cable anti-heroic character studies, “The Chicago Code’’ is a more straightforward network show about a good guy, and Clarke pulls it off nicely.

Clarke’s impatient energy dominates “The Chicago Code,’’ but it is nicely balanced by the more contained presence of Jennifer Beals as Teresa Colvin, the police superintendent. He is pig-headed and compulsive; she is sane and determined. Jarek and Teresa were once police partners, and their bond is still strong as she enlists him in her secret effort to take down crooked alderman Ronin Gibbons, played with shifty eyes and sharp claws by a riveting Delroy Lindo. Thankfully, the writers don’t seem to have romantic plans for Jarek and Teresa, so “The Chicago Code’’ won’t get mired in office goo. This pair is all about the work.

Also in the mix: Jarek’s young partner, Caleb Evers (Matt Lauria from “Friday Night Lights’’). Jarek generally cycles through partners who can’t take his personality quirks (which include an aversion to profanity — a network-ready quirk, that). But his connection with the sincere Caleb just may work out. At one point, Caleb tries to start some “Pulp Fiction’’-like cop banter with Jarek, but Jarek will have none of it. Caleb gets it: Jarek, like his poufed-up hairstyle, is proudly old-school. A few of the other characters, including Jarek’s cop niece, Vonda (Devin Kelley), are peripheral and vague, waiting for later development. Meanwhile, Clarke, Beals, Lindo, and Lauria are diverting enough.

I like the way “The Chicago Code’’ hops forward without a lot of explication. You can detect Lindo’s creep enacting his counterattacks on Teresa without anyone spelling them out for our benefit. I also like the voice-over technique, which has different characters narrating their inmost thoughts sporadically throughout the series. It adds a layer of subjectivity to the mix, especially when we hear Gibbons justifying himself. While some shows rely on voice-over to explain the action, “The Chicago Code’’ uses it as an artsy flourish, and I suspect it won’t last long, if the show lasts.

Can “The Chicago Code’’ evolve into a great network cop drama? To be great, it needs to leave its particular stamp on the genre — like “NYPD Blue,’’ for instance, which wedded hand-held visual poetry to morally shaky good guys. It’s hard to say if this show will rise to the occasion, but I’ll definitely be watching to find out.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

THE CHICAGO CODE

Starring: Jennifer Beals, Jason Clarke, Delroy Lindo, Matt Lauria

On: Fox, Channel 25

Time: Tonight, 9-10