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Showtime’s stellar ‘The Chi’ is a rich portrait of Chicago’s South Side

Michael Epps as Jake (from left), Alex Hibbert as Kevin and Shamon Brown Jr. as Papa in "The CHI." | Parrish Lewis/SHOWTIME

“The Chi” wants you to know there’s more to the stories you see on the 10:00 news.

Showtime’s superb new drama (9 p.m. Sundays, ★★★½ out of four) offers a deep and thoughtful look at the South Side of Chicago and a loosely connected group of its residents. Created by Lena Waithe, who last year became the first African-American woman to win a comedy writing Emmy for her work on “Master of None,” “The Chi” appears to be a direct response to the politicization of the city and its violence. The lush and moving series gives faces, names and stories to people often dehumanized in statistics and media reports.

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With a remarkably talented ensemble cast, “The Chi” unfolds an intricate story about mostly young black men and adolescent boys living in the neighborhood, their experiences marked by their family, friends, economic circumstances, and yes, violence.

“The Chi” doesn’t refute the city’s bloodshed, but instead offers a deeper understanding of it. The series has a confident sense of its place, helped by on-location filming and Waithe’s smart scripts. Its disparate characters are brought together primarily as a result of two connected murders, and the story is less about who did it – one of the crimes is shown on screen – and more about what happens next. Both deaths are heartbreaking, senseless and cause devastating ripple effects in the lives of the victims’ families and friends. The tragedies are also, as in real life, shrugged off by some disinterested parties, be they shady cops, bystanders or neighbors.

Jason Mitchell as Brandon in “The Chi,” standing next to a streetside memorial to his character’s murdered half-brother. | Showtime

The series opens by introducing its large cast, but revolves chiefly around four men: Brandon (Jason Mitchell, Mudbound) is a chef with dreams of opening his own restaurant with his girlfriend, Jerrika (Tiffany Boone), and has a shaky relationship with his mother, Laverne (Sonja Sohn), who has a drinking problem. Emmett (Jacob Latimore) is a too-carefree teen who quickly learns responsibility to care for his toddler son. Ronnie (Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine), a drifter and confidential informant for Det. Rick Cruz (Armando Riesco), struggles with the death of his surrogate son and caring for his aging grandmother. And Kevin (Alex Hibbert), a middle-schooler consumed with crushes and school plays, is forced into a more adult world when he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Common, a producer on the series, also shows up in a supporting role midway through the season as a Muslim man connected to Ronnie.

The casting is impeccable all around, but Mitchell and Hibbert, a star of the Oscar-winning “Moonlight,”  are breakouts, grounding the series’ exceptional and harrowing fourth episode.

“The Chi” falters slightly by relying too heavily on happenstance to assemble its characters and push its plot forward. It requires too much suspension of disbelief to have the brother of a murder victim discover the killer by running into a stranger at a store, who just happens to know a witness.

But once “The Chi” puts its characters in place and starts moving in its second and third episodes, viewers might forgive the too-coincidental circumstances that brought them together.

More important is the emotion and humanity of these characters, and “The Chi” offers a remarkably raw portrayal of their strengths and flaws, for better or worse.

Kelly Lawler, USA TODAY