Season 6 of ‘The Chi’ brings new drama and a chance to catch up on TV’s most Chicago show

While it digs into heavy issues from the local headlines, Showtime series also stands out by showing the fullness of a South Side community.

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Jemma (Judae’a Brown) and Jake (Michael V. Epps) return this weekend for Season 6 of “The Chi.”

SHOWTIME

Showtime’s “The Chi” has never shied away from drama, theatrically or in real life.

Offscreen, the writers’ strike abruptly halted filming of its sixth season, with Chicago picketers targeting its South Side set. But producers squeezed out eight episodes that will drop as the first release this week of what is ultimately planned to be a two-part season once filming resumes.

The Part 1 premiere will begin streaming Friday on Paramount+, for those with the Showtime plan, and will debut on the Showtime TV channel at 8 p.m. Sunday.

Onscreen, the drama mines Chicago’s actual headlines, from gun violence to missing Black women and girls.

With production of freshly scripted series halted over strikes, now is a good time to binge to catch up on the show. Here is a helpful, mostly spoiler-free guide to catch you up on what you missed — and why it’s the most Chicago show on TV right now.

What is the basic premise?

Season 1 of “The Chi,”, which premiered in 2018, starts off with a heavy focus on the collective trauma from the shooting death of a beloved neighborhood teen. That causes a ripple effect through a connected South Side Chicago neighborhood.

But as the show finds its way across multiple seasons, the characters grow, and that focus expands to highlight everyday themes such as familial relationships, life as a young parent and friendship.

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Boys when “The Chi” began in 2018, Alex Hibbert (left) and Shamon Brown Jr. have grown into key actors on the series.

Showtime

Although the show has many characters who remain from that initial season, “The Chi’s” youngest actors consistently earn their place — and get expanded storylines as the show progresses. Kevin (Alex Hibbert) began as the show’s young star, and as his friends Jake (Michael V. Epps) and Papa (Shamon Brown Jr.) steal fans’ hearts, they become key characters. Viewers watch them grow from middle-school kids to young adults in high school with very different challenges.

Why does the show feel so relevant?

With Chicagoans Lena Waithe and Common as two of the show’s executive producers, often the episodes feel sourced straight from Chicago headlines. One season dives heavily into missing Black women and girls. The plotline shows how the burden of establishing investigations often falls on families, who must prove, for example, that a missing Black teen isn’t a runaway, while also battling victim-blaming.

In recent years, the show confronts the idea of defunding the police. It also tries to show the challenges that come along with neighborhoods creating their own means of support. In the drama, community members create an organization that people can call for emergencies. Sometimes the help goes well, and sometimes it doesn’t. But that kind of plotline is not often seen dramatized on TV.

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Imani (Jasmine Davis, pictured during Season 3) is one of two trans characters on “The Chi.”

Showtime

There’s also a storyline about queerness and transphobia as the show has introduced two trans characters (Imani played by Jasmine Davis, and Fatima played by L’lerrét Jazelle) — neither of whom are pushed into stereotypical tropes.

What behind-the-scenes controversy impacted the show?

For new viewers, “The Chi’s” third season kicks off with a startling and abrupt opener without the context of the real-word controversy behind it. In 2019, Jason Mitchell, who played Brandon — one of the show’s main characters — was fired after multiple misconduct allegations, including one from actor Tiffany Boone who played his girlfriend, Jerrika.

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The departures of Jason Mitchell (as Brandon) and Tiffany Boone (as Jerrika) shifted plotlines on “The Chi.”

Showtime

Mitchell’s abrupt departure from the show, and later Boone’s, caused some major character changes. Nevertheless, after the initial shock of the major shift in plot, the show pads in enough drama that viewers can eventually push the strangeness of episode one aside.

What will Chicagoans recognize, and why has that been an issue?

“The Chi” will immediately look familiar to Chicagoans, but in Season 1, that might not always be a good thing. The first season of the show has many scenes shot on the city’s West Side. And as any Chicagoan can explain: Every side of the city has its own visual aesthetic.

In the first season, many of the characters visit a “South Side” corner store that is actually a West Side building. There are also scenes with characters on an “L” train platform with just the sign changed to appear to be on the South Side. Unfortunately for the show, Chicago audiences notice everything, and some viewers voiced their dissatisfaction with these choices on social media.

But show producers took this feedback to heart for Season 2 and focused more in subsequent seasons on more accurately depicting the South Side. In later seasons, viewers start seeing more authentic scenes, from a food truck parked in front of the Avalon Regal Theater on 79th Street to characters walking down the streets with noticeable signs, and the South Side lakefront as a backdrop.

Start at Season 6, or at the beginning?

It is possible to start watching “The Chi” in Season 6 and not feel totally lost. But through past seasons, many of the characters have had significant evolutions, and missing past episodes will rob viewers of the heartwarming and funny backstories.

Why does it stand out in a crowded streaming market?

“The Chi” is indeed a drama — with the show not shying away from many of the serious, scary, and downright traumatic things that can happen in a major city. But it also shows the fullness of a community. Its writers ensure that there are moments of love and tenderness, of joy and happiness, of family and friendship.

This balance is what makes a collection of blocks and streets feel like a community. And it’s what makes “The Chi” relatable to the viewers who love it.

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