Chicago television blues

Are Chicago-based television shows doomed to fail?

January 7, 2013

Chicago may be called The Second City, but in terms of television success, a number farther down the list would be more accurate.

As 2012 drew to a close, two Chicago-based TV shows were cancelled by their respective networks. The Mob Doctor, FOX’s low-rated (and hilariously awful) drama about a surgeon working for the mafia, was whacked after just 13 episodes. Boss, another low-rated (but surprisingly riveting) drama starring Kelsey Grammer as a corrupt Daley-esque Chicago mayor, got the axe after struggling to connect with viewers on Starz for two seasons.

Grammer claims that audiences shunned Boss in response to his own right-leaning political beliefs (a Fox News-style conspiracy theory that I don't buy for a second) and one could argue that abysmal writing was solely to blame for The Mob Doctor’s demise. Still, the truth is that most TV shows filmed in Chicago don’t last long, regardless of script quality or star power.

The Chicago Code, an intense crime drama on FOX starring Jennifer Beals, was cancelled after just one season in May 2011. That same year, NBC’s The Playboy Club, which, granted, was much less promising than The Chicago Code, was also shut down after only three episodes on the air.

Currently, MTV’s Underemployed and NBC’s Chicago Fire are holding on to their local film crews, despite mixed reviews from critics and worryingly low ratings. But if these shows don’t step up their game and attract more viewers soon, they too will descend into the same cancelled TV purgatory.

On paper, Chicago seems like the perfect place to film a hit TV show: highly cinematic atmosphere, hardworking crews and a plethora of talented local actors to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. So why are shows like CBS’s The Good Wife set in Chicago, but filmed elsewhere?

Unfortunately, logistical factors make filming in the Windy City more of a hassle than an advantage. Most film crews would rather shoot in locations like Los Angeles, New Orleans or Vancouver, where the taxes are lower and the weather much more reliable.

Even colder and more expensive cities like New York are preferable, with a multitude of soundtages available despite high production costs. Chicago has one big film studio, the beautiful Cinespace on the Near West Side, but more widespread studio space could also allow more productions to be filmed indoors during the freezing winter months.

Thankfully, Chicago seems to have better luck with films. Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon was a literal disaster movie shot downtown during the summer of 2010 that created thousands of jobs for local film crews. And who could forget director Christopher Nolan taking over Chicago in the summer of 2007 with The Dark Knight, catapulting Batman off rooftops, sending the Joker careening through the streets and modeling Gotham’s skyline after ours?

While television shows have floundered in comparison to the great films that have been made here, Chicagoans shouldn’t lose hope. The ShowTime drama Shameless, which has been filming exterior locations in Chicago since 2010, still reigns on cable as a critical darling. And who knows? Maybe a Dark Knight television series is just around the corner…

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