[15 April 2012]
It’s hard to be a cop show. The heyday of television shows about uniformed officers—like Adam-12, Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue—is past, replaced by procedurals and forensics montages. Over the last 15 years, creators as talented as Tom Fontana, Barry Levinson, Steve Bochco, and Ann Biderman (whose critically acclaimed Southland is exiled from network to TNT) have tried and failed to create hit television programs about police working on urban streets.
Now comes NYC 22, premiering 15 April on CBS. Here six academy grads step into a very 21st-century Harlem, uneasily gentrifying into Upper Manhattan. The first episode is not a courageous start, despite good acting from the ensemble cast, generous location shooting, and a quirkily realized context. The script not only introduces all six rookies and their training officer, but also batters the audience with all six backstories plus, as at least one critic notes, a pile of clichés.
Thus we aren’t surprised when the training officer reminds the rookies to call for backup if they see anything “suspicious”: we’ve seen this scene before. But it gets worse: even the kindest-hearted viewer must doubt the intelligence of scriptwriters and characters alike, when not one of the rookies does so, despite facing rioting gangs, shotgun-wielding depressives, and an old school friend deep into callous extortion. Neither is it promising that the show replicates Southland‘s rookie-cop-and-the-decomposing-corpse scene and right away seeds the requisite will-they-won’t they? romantic storyline.
NYC 22’s second episode does a little better, immersing the rookies in their first midnight shift, where they confront the cognitive dissonance of policing in an overstretched precinct. When two of the crew try to report a drug deal on one of their blocks, they encounter the concept of the “law-abiding criminal,” in this case a middle-aged couple selling marijuana from their brownstone. In a nifty piece of misdirection, the episode transforms a hackneyed love lesson for a moony innocent into a clever bust for a cop with good gut instincts.
The looser, less reactive pace of the second episode also gives space to the drama’s context. Although Richard Price claims he created the show with “no social agenda,” the most thought-provoking moments in the first episodes sneak out of its edgy topicality. While the group of baby blues displays the one-of-each social engineering that networks substitute for genuine character and casting diversity, the show does suggest the particular experience of blue-collar work in a tough economy. NYC 22‘s young cops are struggling their way upwards or desperately sliding down into oblivion.
The line between these futures, and also between breaking the law and being the law, is razor thin for ambitious Tonya (Judy Marte). As training officer Daniel Dean (Terry Kinney) reminds her, the 22nd Precinct has arrested almost everyone else in her family, and young people from her background wash out of the police as often as they make it. Also up against it is Afghani migrant Ahmad (Tom Reed). Laid-off crime reporter Ray (Adam Goldberg) and flamed-out basketball star Jayson (Harold House Moore) both see the NYPD as their last chance. Ray claims he has more sources on the police beat than the police themselves, but he’s also a recovering alcoholic. And although Jayson claims he joined the police to “give back” to the community, he also carries with him a nimbus of anxiety, as if his old neighborhood is waiting to reclaim him.
In these characters hoping to transform themselves, NYC 22 hints at the ambiguity of gentrification, where working-class people see the $900 rentals they once could afford bid up to three and four times that price by entrepreneurs spying new markets, who in turn see illegal street action thrive at the expense of their own legitimate businesses. The rookies, too, represent this shift, commuting to work in the precinct, armed with concepts of right and wrong that challenge neighborhood traditions of policing more than those traditions challenge their own certainties. In the first episodes of NYC 22, thoughtful exploration of such tensions is potential rather than actual. We can hope that Price’s own move a few years ago to Harlem will inform that background over time.
Until then, the show offers plenty of Harlem locations. Here, the action evolves in wide frames rather than the usual cop show’s two-shots. NYC 22 brings street-side context to conversations and confrontations. The second episode’s night scenes keep all the action visible, and set it against the traffic, trees, loitering passersby, and incandescent nightglow of the city.
Such impressive visual details are unusual on television. But history suggests that they matter little when the blue-collar beat is on screen. It may be that the many compromises of everyday policing are too like those viewers make in their daily life. Or maybe the cops are just too like us, small cogs in big machines, condemned to routine and passing the exciting stuff up the chain of command. Perhaps they confront us too much with all we seek to escape, concerning our thwarted autonomy and our own lack of power.