There's an old Rudyard Kipling quote about Chicago I haven't heard for a while that shows up in the new NBC drama "Chicago PD," a show that looks to portray police work the old school way: tough, dirty and not without personal costs. Will you see expansive recaps on this show every week? No. It's not that kind of series. Is it a touch overheated at times? Yes. But it hits the spot.
But first, that Kipling line. Having married an American, Kipling spent some time on these shores and jotted down his acerbic observations in a 1891 collection called "American Notes." Chicago does not fare well. Even the famed Palmer House comes in for a drubbing, reduced to a "huge hall of tessellated marble crammed with people talking about money, and spitting about everywhere." Having had his fill of the city, he wrote: "I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages."
A portion of that quote surfaces in the second episode of "Chicago PD," which premieres 9 p.m. Wednesday on NBC. It is the latest drama from "Law & Order" producer Dick Wolf and a spin-off of "Chicago Fire."
"I work for Chicago, you understand?" says the maybe-dirty, maybe-honorably solid police sergeant Hank Voight (Jason Beghe), seen in previous seasons on "Chicago Fire" as the thorn in everyone's side. He has re-emerged as the head of the department's intelligence unit, a rogue band of mostly young faces who bear down on the city's gun-runners and cartel leaders.
"Look at that," Voight says gesturing to the city skyline. And then he brings up that old diss from Kipling, whom he calls "some precious little writer from a long time ago. I think he was English. And he was bagging on this place after visiting it. You know what he called it? He called it a city inhabited by savages." The line is meant as both warning and badge of pride.
That's probably the most "Chicago" things get in the show's early going, which is the right move. There are no attempts at mimicking the Dennis Farina sound; no "Chicago way" references; no mention of the North Side's baseball team or a certain round bready entree.
Wolf and his co-creators Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Matt Olmstead (the same team behind "Chicago Fire") are too smart for that. Though it doesn't aim for the stripped-down authenticity of a show like the late, great "Southland" (which never did well in the ratings anyway), Wolf and Co. have mostly gone back to basics, hearkening back to shows from an earlier era before forensics took over.
As if to signal that, they're using the old Maxwell Street police station for exteriors — the same building glimpsed briefly in the opening credits for "Hill Street Blues" (one of Wolf's old gigs, by the by).
There's nothing particularly hi-tech about this unit, beyond a listening device planted in a belt buckle. This is about old school, shoe-leather police work and the emotional toll of the job. And chases. And stand-offs. "Get the long guns!" may be a cheesy line, but it works.
The melodramatic underscoring, on the other hand, is almost a parody of itself. And verisimilitude is shaky at times — when two cops looking for a caffeine jolt grab the pot with the orange (aka decaf) handle, it makes you wonder how long its been since anyone on that set got their own coffee — but "Chicago Fire" has similar issues as well. And that show is first-rate when it gets down to the naturalistic business of men and women doing their jobs. It's OK to show the mundane moments. One hopes "Chicago PD's" producers embrace that side a bit more.
"You tell me the truth so I can lie for you," Beghe's Sgt. Voight says to his unit, where the jacket of choice is apparently leather, always leather.
A word about Beghe and that voice. It's somewhere between Tone Loc and the Grim Reaper. A man could brew coffee in the back of that throat. It is a vocal asset that goes a long way when you're surrounded by an inordinate number of attractive faces.
Along with Beghe, the intelligence unit features a couple more holdovers from "Chicago Fire" including Jon Seda (as Det. Antonio Dawson, brother of EMT Gabriella Dawson) and Jesse Lee Soffer (the undercover cop who had a fling with the same Gabriella last year). This — and the fact that both shows shoot at the same soundstage complex in Lawndale — allows for organic crossover material.
"Chicago PD's" strengths, though, ultimately lie in the less flashy casting decisions. Amy Morton (attention Steppenwolf fans) shows up as an unsmiling desk sergeant who plays all the angles within her small fiefdom. Morton is effortless, this should come as no surprise, and she generates a good portion of the show's comedic mileage, which tends to be wry and sparing. (A handful of other actors familiar to theater audiences, such as Larry Grimm and Edward Torres, pop up in guest roles.)
The unit's grizzled outlier, Det. Alvin Olinsky, is played by Elias Koteas and is the show's ace-in-the-hole. This guy feels real — oh, the drunken bar conversations he and Morton's character could share — and Koteas (who resembles a beat-up, salt-and-pepper version of Christopher Meloni on "Law & Order: SVU") plays the old-timer with the kind of unforced deadpan wit that gives the show a legitimate sense of depth. He doesn't need to announce himself. He's just there. And it feels right.
"We'll do a knock-and-talk," he says as they plan to move in on a dealer. "If whoever's in control of the apartment gets all squirrelly, we'll take it from there." He is often paired with Patrick John Flueger (as a rookie with stones, pulled into the unit straight from the academy), and his character Kyle Ruzak is more than you suspect at first — he's not just your standard new guy with too much confidence and many mistakes in his future. Flueger gives the role a complicated spin; he's smart even when he screws up.
Wolf has said he is essentially establishing a post-"Law & Order" brand with both "Chicago Fire" (which hit a record high of 9.3 million viewers in December) and "Chicago PD" — a specifically Chicago brand.
"No place exemplifies the strength of America like Chicago," he recently told the LA Times.
On the other hand: "See now and judge!" Kipling wrote of the "grotesque ferocity of Chicago."
"Chicago PD," it seems, occupies the middle ground between.