Review: In ‘The Chi,’ a Young Man Dies, and the Ripples Spread

“The Chi” was created by Lena Waithe, a Chicago native who won an Emmy last year for an episode of “Master of None” that she co-wrote, becoming the first black woman to win for comedy writing. (The executive producers include the rapper Common, also from Chicago; the showrunner is Elwood Reid, of the FX border drama “The Bridge.”) “The Chi” exudes hometown affection and tough love.

It’s a tricky balance. The danger of this kind of story is that it can define its characters as personifications of social ills, so that we know them as problems before we know them as people. The first episode runs that risk, leaning hard into the melodrama and underlining its moments of pathos heavily.

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From left, Michael Epps, Alex Hibbert and Shamon Brown Jr. in “The Chi.”

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Parrish Lewis/Showtime

What emerges as “The Chi” gets room to breathe is that, while it unfolds from a crime, it’s not really a crime story. It’s about a widening pool of people who would rather be doing anything besides dealing with the repercussions of a murder.

Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), the father figure to the dead young man, would rather be getting his life together. Brandon (Jason Mitchell), Coogie’s half brother, would rather be advancing his career as a cook in a trendy restaurant. Twelve-year-old Kevin (Alex Hibbert), an unwitting witness, would rather be working up the nerve to talk to his crush at school.

Instead, each of them is confronted by the expectation that to be a man means to take care of business violently. Mr. Mwine is especially remarkable as the precariously balanced Ronnie knocked off his axis by grief.

“The Chi” gradually builds its female characters as well, like Laverne (Sonja Sohn), Brandon’s mother, who bitterly feels that her son thinks he’s better than her, plating pork belly for hipsters and dating a woman who’s “bourgie as turkey bacon.”

Viewers may recognize Ms. Sohn from HBO’s “The Wire,” and while “The Chi” is a very different show, it shares some of that drama’s conversational sense of humor.

It’s also astute about how responsibility for others — parents, siblings, children — complicates lives. For instance, there’s Emmett (Jacob Latimore), a charming ladies’ man who learns that he has a toddler son, making him suddenly responsible for something besides his sneaker collection.

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