CNN’s ‘Chicagoland’ no puff piece or ground breaker in first peek: Brown

Written By By Mark Brown Posted: 03/26/2014, 04:01am

If the new CNN docuseries “Chicagoland” is intended to be a star vehicle for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, as many had speculated, it doesn’t exactly launch him on the road to the White House in the first two episodes.

That’s all the network has sent us for previewing, so don’t hold me to that appraisal if it turns out producers Robert Redford and company have back loaded the series with more laudatory portrayals of our mayor.

Emanuel receives favorable treatment, to be sure, and the story outlines provided for the final six episodes promise even more of the same.

But you don’t come away from those initial installments expecting the nation — or even a lot of Democrats — to start clamoring for an Emanuel presidency.

They’re more likely to think he’s got his hands full right here, which just might be what Emanuel would say as well.

The series will launch Thursday, March 6, and I’ll be curious as to how it’s received in Chicago, although intended for the consumption of CNN’s worldwide audience.

I think most Chicagoans watching the first episode, which focuses on the run-up to last year’s mass closing of public elementary schools against the back drop of street violence, will come away with a sense of been there, done that.

We just lived through it, after all, and it’s no more enjoyable in the retelling.

I’d still recommend watching if only to see for yourself how the city and the mayor are portrayed.

The gist so far: Chicago is a great city with great big problems.

But you knew that.

An episode juxtaposing the excitement of the Blackhawks run to the Stanley Cup with gang crime in Englewood may remind you of what you see most nights on the 10 o’clock news.

Although CNN touts having received “extraordinary access” to Emanuel in preparation of the program, there’s really not much evidence of it in the initial episodes unless you count footage of him explaining ‘the finger” to a group of wide-eyed school children.

“This is how the finger happened,” Emanuel says in a rare discussion of his partially missing middle digit. “You know how an adult says be careful with sharp objects … I was working with a sharp object, and I wasn’t careful.”

For the most part, though, even when it is clear the mayor is being recorded in private settings, he is careful to offer the same sound bites he usually makes in public, which is the hallmark of a smart politician.

In one of the coming attraction snippets, Emanuel is caught dropping an F-bomb, but given his reputation, most viewers would be disappointed if he didn’t at least once.

Probably more problematic for Emanuel is that the early episodes of “Chicagoland” often portray him in sharp conflict with the city’s African-American community — from Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis calling him “the murder mayor” to 9-year-old Asean Johnson castigating him for closing schools in black neighborhoods. The mayor doesn’t really need more public reminders of those raw emotions going into next year’s re-election campaign.

The concerns about “Chicagoland” being a vehicle to promote Emanuel stemmed in part from directors Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin being clients of the mayor’s brother, Hollywood super-agent Ari Emanuel. On the other hand, our former Sun-Times colleague and Pulitzer Prize-winner Mark Konkol was one of the main writers for the show, and I know he’d favor a balanced treatment. Konkol also narrates the program, which gives it a distinctly Chicago voice.

The character in “Chicagoland” for whom I predict you’ll come away most wishing you could cast a vote is not a public official at all but an educator.

Principal Elizabeth Dozier deserves much of the credit for turning around Fenger High School in the aftermath of Derrion Albert’s beating death in 2009, and the producers of “Chicagoland” make sure she gets it.

She accomplished this mostly through her own force of personality and love for her students, although she wisely credits an infusion of federal funds as well.

As the most clearly likeable character in the series, Dozier better watch her back. That kind of favorable treatment is bound to attract the attention of the long knives in the Chicago Public Schools bureaucracy.

A star is born in “Chicagoland.” She goes by Liz.

We’ll have to wait to see how others react to see this Rahm guy.

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