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CNN's 'Chicagoland' Premiere: Reality Show Glitz vs. Real-Life Grit

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RAHM
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel listens as Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy speaks at a press conference on September 10, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images) | Scott Olson via Getty Images

CNN's Thursday night premiere of its eight-episode, Robert Redford-produced "Chicagoland" documentary series was preceded by plenty of pomp. The show's first episode had been screened for Chicago media and influencer types at an invite-only event at the Bank of America Theater on Tuesday, allowing for a steady stream of advance think pieces and media appearances to roll in.

But did the show's premiere live up to the buzz that it would offer a "compelling" and "unflinching" look at the problems facing a city not that different from any other American city? Yes, and no.

For any Chicago resident who's been paying attention over the last two years or so, the first episode of "Chicagoland" didn't stray too far from the mostly familiar storyline of Chicago's historic teachers' strike, followed by the heated battle over closing more than 50 public schools -- a battle carried out amid the backdrop of the city's ballooning homicide rate.

Those story lines are dotted with a "greatest hits" package of headline-grabbing quotes from many of the show's leads, namely Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who (a la Helen Lovejoy) repeatedly defends the controversial school closings as for the benefit of the city's children, and his nemesis Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who is seen describing Emanuel as "the murder mayor" and "a liar" and "a bully."

Beyond those familiar quotes, Emanuel comes off as a self-professed "obsessive" trying desperately to relate to everyday Chicagoans. His daily exercise regime would put even a regular marathoner to shame. His ride on the 'L' with the everymen and women of Chicago comes off as uncomfortable -- indeed, most Chicagoans know, such a ride is a relative rarity for the mayor.

Though the series feels determined to paint itself as showcasing the tough decisions its leaders are being forced to make, when the mayor is shown making them, the situation doesn't come across that way despite the unprecedented access the show had to the mayor. Rahm's comment that his wife said he appeared "more calm than ever" after his hand-picked school board's vote to close 50 neighborhood schools comes off as cold, even callous, when juxtaposed with the emotional testimony from students and parents at school closing hearings that precedes it.

The premiere's mention of the splintering gang factions in Chicago making it tougher to fight violent crime is also old news to anyone with even a passing interest in the Windy City.

That said, "Chicagoland" is not without its stars. Liz Dozier, the principal at Fenger High School in the city's violence-plagued Roseland neighborhood, makes for the first episode's most compelling story line: that of a hard-working woman doing everything she can to inspire the youth she is responsible for day in and day out. Her choice to postpone a student-organized peace march in light of the death of an area gang member provides one of the episode's most heart-wrenching moments. This is what making a difficult decision looks like.

chicagoland cnn
Dozier (center) with her Fenger students. (CNN/AP)

As expected, another highlight of the first episode is young Asean Johnson, the 9-year-old whose speech against school closings went viral. Like Dozier, Johnson is full of energy and passion that seems to derive from a very genuine place -- qualities much easier for an audience to root for than the mayor's calm, cool, occasionally Patrick Bateman-like facade.

All told, it's a difficult filmmaking challenge to do justice to the complicated issues facing a large city with a deep-seated dark reputation.

The first episode of "Chicagoland" does almost too good of a job walking the line between coming across as a multi-part Rahm Emanuel reelection infomercial, as some already claim it is, or a far-left wet dream of a takedown. Here's hoping that "Chicagoland," in its seven remaining episodes, will take more risks in choosing to walk on either side of that line.

"Chicagoland" airs Thursday nights at 10 p.m. ET on CNN.

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