The Chi is attempting a kind of episodic vivisection of black masculinity, from its turgid constraints and limitations to its progressions and stagnations as one traverses boyhood and manhood. But this week’s episode is a bit scattershot, sagging beneath the weight of its myriad characters. The cast has quickly become more overwhelming than kaleidoscopic, so I decided to examine “Alee” with a focus on its four principals, who could each be understood as representative of certain black male stereotypes: the hypersexed (Emmett), the burnt-out (Ronnie), the unlikely success (Brandon), and the boy (Kevin) who’s young enough to fall into any of the aforementioned.
The pilot was enlivened by the presence of Kevin and company, with the familiar, refreshingly inane antics of middle schoolers suffusing much needed buoyancy into an otherwise dour episode. “Alee” finds much of that jejune charm extinguished with the introduction of Maisha (Genesis Denise Hale), a chubby girl-bully who’s the cousin of Kevin’s crush, Andrea. Maisha’s arc — progressing from archetypal, largely harmless antagonizer to underage sexual harasser — is the most perplexing and off-putting element of the episode.
The boys are idling in the school halls, attempting to quell Kevin’s anxieties regarding witnessing Coogie’s murder at the hands of Ronnie, when Maisha enters, shoving and threatening them. Later, with the diminutive Kevin hemmed up against a locker, Maisha reveals that she and Andrea are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and threatens to do him harm if he attempts to sully the virtues of her cousin. On his way home from school, Kevin is pursued by Ronnie, who hilariously holds his ever-present chewing stick in his mouth even as he chases the younger boy. After narrowly evading Ronnie, Kevin is once again accosted by Maisha, who tackles and straddles him. Sitting atop him, her voice gone soft, she reveals her own crush. Kevin’s face puckers, initially in terror, then repulsion. “You like my hair?” she asks, fingering a spiraled tendril. Kevin stutters a yes and Maisha, still straddling him, licks his face before departing.
It’s possible that Kevin’s reaction, his face pinched as he emits a shudder, is akin to anyone’s natural response at having their face involuntarily licked. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that the scene, and Maisha’s bullish presence in general, was animated by the collective understanding that of course the boys would find her unattractive and repellant. Of course she’s a sexual deviant, though she is all of 12 years old. “You like my hair?” is a perfect summation of the angst that many young black girls have felt regarding their appearances in general, their hair especially. What girl hasn’t desired for a boy to find her hair pretty, to find her pretty? What black girl hasn’t been forced to realize that so often, it’ll be boys who look like you who frequently will not?
“Alee” begins with a party, which is interrupted when Emmett’s girlfriend Keisha confronts a female partygoer for eyeing him. A party scene or gathering in a TV series presents an opportunity for the show makers to really delve into the characters and their settings: The music they choose, how they move to it, and the décor and layout of an apartment have the possibility to be deeply revelatory and engaging. That this opportunity was squandered for the sake of a cringeworthy, neck-rolling confrontation between two black women is a little disappointing — and it represents a continuation of what I felt about the pilot’s refusal (or inability) to render black women as realistic, multidimensional characters.
After calming Keisha, Emmett attempts to seduce her, but their tryst is interrupted by his crying son. So far, Emmett’s trials as a new father are the primary subject for his character. He’s forced to take his kid to work with him when his mom stands firm in her decision to not babysit, and inside of his workplace, a debonair stranger named Quentin (Steven Williams), emitting no good vibes, offers up a $100 bill and the suggestion that Emmett take his child to a local day care. Emmett, of course, takes the money. We know, as Emmett apparently does not, that the debt will be recouped. I didn’t quite buy such wide-eyed naiveté when he took this man’s money. Emmett just feels like the type of character who should have known better. I foresee Quentin demanding a drug or gun run out of Emmett as repayment for the hundred.
After the day-care provider refuses to take his son, Emmett retreats to a playground, where the baby’s incessant crying nearly drives him to child abandonment. This was the first moment where I felt a semblance of empathy for him. Who hasn’t encountered a parent, struggling with a fussy toddler in a public setting and thought of the shortness of their own temper? The moment is a perfect display of Emmett’s fundamental unpreparedness for parenthood. I felt for him in that moment, but his presence in general is kind of befuddling to me. Is he school-aged, as his girlfriend apparently is? If so, why isn’t he enrolled in school? (Also, as an ostensibly underaged girl, Keisha’s frequent nudity is more than a little unsettling.) Still, I enjoyed his last scene with his mother, where he collapses into her lap, exhausted from his first day as a new parent.
Are you aware that black men cry? If you were not, Brandon, leaking tears in almost every one of his appearances, is proof of that fact. “Alee” finds Brandon grappling with the death of his younger brother Coogie and still toying with the prospect of avenging his death. A co-worker reveals that he has access to a gun, which is especially tempting to Brandon after he realizes that Detective Cruz is no closer to apprehending Coogie’s killer. Meanwhile, he’s still flirting with his boss, a story line that I honestly find wholly distracting and unnecessary. His cheating would be especially devastating to his Good, Supportive Girlfriend, who makes him promise that he won’t do “some stupid hood shit.”
Brandon also revisits Kevin, whose voice drops to a mobster’s tenor as he asks, “You gonna smoke this nigga or what?” For the second week in a row, Brandon balks at the use of the N-word. I feel like the show is attempting a “South Side boy done good” example with Brandon, but he’s a bit too narrowly respectable to be interesting. I think that by next episode, Brandon will have to definitively make a choice about pursuing Coogie’s murderer. For the sake of a plotline, I suspect he will.
Ronnie is attempting a reconciliation with Tracy, as they both continue grieving Jason’s death. I enjoyed his interactions with his friends in this episode and wish the series had whittled down the cast of characters, so that they could have more screen time. Ronnie also visits his grandmother Ethel (LaDonna Tittle), an octogenarian who reminds him of his joblessness and general uselessness. Again, it’s black women who most frequently pummel the show’s male characters, both emotionally and physically. But in a nice exemplification of the smallness of black Chicago, Ethel’s caretaker is Emmett’s mom. It’s only a matter of time until the two men’s paths will intersect.
Meanwhile, eager to hide his tracks, Ronnie sells the gun he used to murder Coogie to a seemingly mad gun enthusiast. (Again, for the sake of plot, we know that this decision will come back to bite him.) He’s also accosted and searched, once again, by Detective Cruz, who informs him that Coogie did not murder Jason, as he suspected when he confronted the boy. The episode ends with a stumbling Ronnie, wavering beneath the weight of this new information as a train screeches by. This was one of the best utilizations of director David Rodriguez’s numerous shots of the passing train, with the screeching hydraulics and metal serving as an audible accompaniment to Ronnie’s emotional discord.
The cop subplot is extraneous and quite frequently intrusive. Detective Cruz and his partner are still flummoxed by the murders of Jason and Coogie, with Cruz’s ever-present squint remaining the moral opposite of his aggressively, almost unbelievably obstinate partner. Cruz’s perfectly competent, bland altruism is nigh heroic when juxtaposed against a character who says things like, “I got 8-year-olds shooting each other over cans of grape pop,” and makes a derogatory gay comment when Cruz asks how Coogie and Jason’s deaths were correlated. Also, while it may strike some as a small detail, I balked at the inclusion of blue-and-white police sedans, with no representations of the widely used SUV-style cruisers. Including the larger vehicles would have hinted at the excessive, militarized police presence that is such an integral part of black neighborhoods in Chicago. For now, we’re instead left with Cruz and his headstrong counterpart, a pair of characters that push The Chi and its ensemble cast from ambitious to unwieldy.