I grew up on the Southwest Side of Chicago. I moved north after college to be closer to an opportunity I got to work for a small production company. Since then I have been building a career as a director that tells stories for the clients we serve. I fully understand the challenges of producing media within government and corporations. I was excited to see how another team from a large studio would represent Chicago in this series. Later, I was disappointed when it turned out to be another “reality” TV show.
That is not to say that some of the stories or production was bad. It just failed to deliver Chicago as I know most Chicagoans see it.
Here are three things I think the producers missed.
1. Three stories. This morning a story is cycling the news: “Controversy,” around the CNN documentary on Chicago. Emails between the producers and the mayors office reveal the struggles producers had in gaining access to our mayor. No big surprise here. Those of us living in Rahm’s Chicago know how carefully cultivated his images is. This is true for almost every client I have worked with. We ALL cultivate our images. Getting people to be themselves on camera is a REAL skill. Like Goodhart’s Law, once you measure something you change it, people change when the camera’s come out. Don’t believe the “controversy,” this is a challenge all producers face. The tension between the stories they want to tell and the access they can get to those stories is part of the job. That being said I think the choices they made on how those stories are told fell flat. Too much time hunting for the sensational and not enough of good storytelling.
We never see our three “heroes,” in the environments they call home. We only see them working in the roles the show presents. As a documentarian I am always interested in learning about “when the cape comes off.” When our heroes sit down to collect themselves. These are the vulnerable and beautiful moments of life that add breadth to stories.
It’s solid work. But it’s one sided without much intelligence to it’s own bias. There seems to be little collaboration between subject and director and it feels like there is more footage missing. Someone chopped the s*!% out of the series in the editing room.
2. The voice over. Can I tell you how much I HATE the voice over? I loathe the voice over choice. Voice is key in any production. I sometimes spend months selecting a voice for projects. The tough Chicago accent and deep bold sound is a nod to “Da Superfans.” Not only is it a bad choice but the tone it sets for the show tells me a lot about the people who made it. It’s authoritative, slick, lacking in empathy and “in your face.” It’s laughably bad. The voice is reminiscent of Mayor Daly’s red faced rants to the media. I cringe at the round sound and bad pronunciation.
If the show were to be progressive I would have selected a high school student from Dossier to be the voice of the show. A youthful sound that is currently living through the challenges the show talks about would have created a completely different feel. This voice feels like it has no connection to the images. This makes the experience of the show tough to swallow. It is the difference between allowing someone to emerge as a voice and slapping a sticker on a pretty package. The voice they selected is a sticker.
3. Hunting vs. Gathering. I can tell the production crew was “hunting” for a story. They tried to bridge stories by forcing interactions between the casted people and by sending crews out to “find” material. The B-roll of violence was sought after. It didn’t emerge from the story. This is why it feels upsetting, there is little connection to the actual violence. That is not to say that violence is not a real challenge for our city. It is. But they didn’t do their homework.
This is the difference between a crew that gathers material and those who hunt for it. Gathering is harder. It requires patience. But the result of gathering material is that you end up with a more genuine picture of why something happens. If you want to see what gathering looks like, watch The Interrupters. This is where I have a problem with most “documentary” shows on TV. It is still TV. This was not PBS or the BBC. This was CNN. A news network that hunts for stories. Case in point: The month long coverage of the missing jet in the indian ocean.
They missed the boat on making any real statement that could help change policy or help the issues Chicago faces. It’s a fancy PR trick that tried to be cool, disguised as a documentary. Oh, by the way … It’s sponsored by Allstate.
Overall, it’s worth a watch to gather your own opinion. I do enjoy seeing anything from Chicago in mainstream national media, even if I know how biased it is. At least this show has people like myself talking. That is all you can really ask for.