I Like to Cheer in Real Time
Abby Kowalski (Rachael Carpani), a detective in Chicago PD’s Internal Affairs department, is the latest contender to succeed Brenda Leigh Johnson as TV’s top quirky female cop. At first glance, she’s a bundle of tics in search of a role: she trips over curbs, crashes into supermarket displays, sings sotto voce whenever she’s nervous, and is abnormally dependent on her father’s approval. As of the first episode of Against the Wall, it’s unclear whether she will be an engaging character or an annoying caricature.
Her new job isn’t precisely what her family expected. It means she’s leaving behind the beat cop career path carved out by her father, Don (Treat Williams), and followed by all three of her brothers, and so, opting out of the traditional satisfactions of her blue collar background: church, family, and the thin blue line. Armed with a Master’s degree in criminology, she takes the job in IA, she says, because it’s the only detective’s slot available.
But Don recognizes that she’s also making a bid for independence, and accuses her of “screwing over” her family for her own ambition. Only her mother, Sheila (Kathy Baker), recognizes that the status quo Don and his sons represent may well have run its course. As Abby talks about her decision, Sheila patiently asks, a propos of Don, “When are you going to stop looking for his approval?”
Following the set-up of this family dynamic, the first episode seems more concerned with establishing future plotlines and touching political bases than engaging the audience with original drama. Abby appears to have not one but two potential “will they or won’t they” relationships with men. On the one hand looms her college buddy Danny (Chris Johnson), who is ready to turn a friendship into much more. On the other, Brody (Andrew Walker) provides lurid (and badly shot) Harlequin-romance-style sex, but happens to be her brother’s on-the-job partner, and under threat of death if he touches Abby.
She’s also got a grouchy new partner, Lina (Marisa Ramirez), six months pregnant with a boy, though she wants a girl, and lashing out at Abby for using IA as a career builder. Lina’s role is so underwritten that it’s hard not to suspect that she’s in place to provide a slot for a non-Caucasian cast member and a shaky semblance of female partnership.
Lina and Abby’s first investigation is a doozy: they clear a tough beat cop of assault in a bar when they discover he’s abused by his rich wife and fearful of losing access to his kids. The plot is so touchy-feely, it’s creepy, and about as dramatic as a boiled egg. Worse, it swerves from portraying Internal Affairs as the agency that “investigates its own” in order to excise malfeasance and corruption from the police force to portraying it as a kind of friendly neighbor who, as Abby proclaims while rehearsing what she’ll say to her family about it, “clears the innocent when falsely accused.”
By the series opener’s end, it’s not clear whether Against the Wall is a family drama dabbling in crime or a cop show detouring into domestic conflict. Such generic uncertainty dilutes viewers’ identifications with characters and investments in themes. But this needn’t be fatal: despite the wobbles in plotting, the script can snap, especially in the incidental scenes linking the main plot points.
When football-mad Abby tells her roommate, “I don’t TiVo my Bears. I like to cheer in real time,” her friend immediately snaps back, “You do know they can’t hear you?” And after her brothers Donny (James Thomas) and Steve (Steve Byers) call Lina a “bitch,” Abby retorts that she’s not, then immediately backtracks, telling them that actually she doesn’t know, because she only met her that day. Even Sheila, whom viewers first meet in church, and who appears to be the latest in a long line of saintly mothers on Lifetime and CBS, gets a comeback line, reminding her husband that what he calls Abby’s “mistake,” she calls a “decision.”
It may seem as if these tensions between family and career, class solidarity and professional ambition, have run their course on TV. But Abby’s dilemmas are still the dilemmas of millions of women, especially during a recession. Increased access to education and hard work equip working-class and lower-middle-class women for jobs that out-pay and outrank those of their male peers. The negotiation of obligations to self, parents, and partners are painful, especially for women who value their belonging to traditional communities, of whatever stripe.
Against the Wall may be able to look at what happens when male-dominated blue-collar workers ends and a feminized, postmodern work force emerges, and when education and flexibility are more important to survival than caste loyalties and ties to tradition. If the show has the courage to probe this very contemporary evolution, Abby’s tenure at IA might provide grown-up drama for women of an age more often served by sexist sitcoms. And if not, Lifetime may be delivering just another old-fashioned family drama with nothing new to say.