Good cop Eddie Sutton (Russell Hornsby) confronts all kinds of troubles in the first episode of Lincoln Heights. A survivor of the neighborhood who “got out,” he now returns in uniform, busting crack dealers and looking to clean up the Los Angeles neighborhood. (That it needs cleaning up is indicated in the usual manner: a low angle close up of street signs, Lincoln and 5th, with a stop sign looming just under them.) That’s not to say Eddie’s a tough guy: he prefers to talk down his suspects, to gain gangsters’ trust, to offer his own middle class success as an alternative. Still, as the first scene shows in tense, jiggedy split-screens, he’s also got to deal with an array of knuckleheads, from dealers to addicts to his own partner.
As Eddie and Kevin (Michael Reilly Burke) make their way into the crackhouse they’re assigned to shut down, they find it empty, save for trashed furniture and half-eaten cans of food on the table. “Gross,” mutters Kevin, pointing to a scuttling rat. “The way these people live.” The cut to Eddie’s face ensures that you share his upset at such dismissal, whether it’s as racist as it sounds or just ignorant. And then the Lincoln Heights does something smart: it cuts outside to Donelle (Greg Davis Jr.), watching the bust from across the street. His face registers a revulsion much like Eddie’s, though again, it’s hard to read his context right away, whether he’s angry at his neighborhood being targeted yet again or at the black man working alongside a white one in the takedown.
This pilot episode goes on to stumble over all kinds of clichés in plot and dialogue, but, directed by the consistently resourceful Kevin Hooks (and scored by the brilliant Stanley Clark), it also comprises these sorts of intelligent shots and cuts. Such subtleties, as well as excellent performances (see especially: Hornsby, also brilliant in Playmakers) tell more compelling stories than the script seems inclined to handle. Case in point: the series’ premise has Eddie deciding to purchase that very crackhouse, part of the department’s “housing program,” making confiscated homes available at low costs in order to “take back” neighborhoods. While his wife Jenn (Nicki Micheaux) isn’t thrilled that they currently live in a too-small apartment, she’s understandably reluctant to move her three children into an area known for drug deals and drive-bys.
The house is available only because it was raided, Jenn notes. Eddie has an answer for that: “The raid shows The Man is serious about cleaning the place up. They’re taking care of business, filling the potholes, fixing the lights. There’s more money for schools, cops are patrolling. This housing program is part of the effort. But it won’t work if no one participates.” (The Man? Oh, right, this is the ABC Family channel, still contracted to language restrictions from its 1977 inception on Pat Robertson’s CBN, and apparently, still using language from 1977.) And with that, Jenn gives in, handing him a copy of Home Improvement for Dummies.
It’s good to give back, but to risk your kids too takes some TV-melodramatic calculations. A wreck with broken boards and windows on first look, the house is soon (Four months later”) quite inhabitable. The kids have their own rooms, and Jenn a driveway for the car she dries to work (a hospital). The kids have a good sense of humor and survival about their dad’s occupation: when he offers to drop them off at the first day school, all three turn him down. “Oh right,” says the oldest, Cassie (Erica Hubbard), “That would ensure that nobody talks to me the rest of the semester.” All the kids have “issues” too neatly resolved by the end of the first episode: Tay (Mishon Ratliff) deals with bullies stealing his lunch money and hoops star Lizzie (Rhyon Nicole Brown) with her basketball coach’s refusal to let her off the bench.
More compelling is Eddie’s developing relationship with Donelle: both know the stakes, that “getting out” is a matter of life and death. The difference is that Donelle doesn’t have that bit of hope that Eddie might have had a generation before (“You just don’t get it,” sighs Donelle when Eddie comes with happy talk about what may come “tomorrow.” “I don’t have tomorrow and there’s no way that I’ll ever be grown up.”) Declaring his turf and his influence over what happens on the block where Eddie’s moved in, Donelle shows no fear of cops. “You could be George Washington Martin Luther Bush,” he sneers, “But here, you’re in my yard.” Donelle’s choice of names (in addition to the nice work by the two actors in this exchange, with Hornsby allowing Eddie’s slightest bit of uncertainty to show through) suggests his hopelessness: all “authorities” are compromised by definition.
This attitude is conspicuous among the other, older neighbors as well: everyone distrusts Eddie, despite and because of his efforts. Jake (William Stanford Davis) explains (because, apparently, Eddie’s not seen the news recently, or paid much attention to how the cops are perceived in L.A. specifically, or urban U.S. generally): a kid was arrested for rape (even though the suspect was described as white), and, even though he was released, he now suffers “neuralgia in both wrists because the cuffs were too tight.” Jake sums up: “Folks around here see the po-lice as more dangerous than the Ebola virus.”
Eddie’s education in these scenes is tedious; as he reminds you repeatedly, he grew up here. His tour for the kids notes the places where he roller skated, had his first kiss, and learned how to box, including the “Ali shuffle,” suggesting that he lived through at least some historical race tensions. Here the focus is generational: Donelle and Eddie do initially contend over who holds sway on the block. One confrontation ends with Donelle seeming on top, walking across the street into the shadows, his baggy shirt fluttering in the night breeze: it’s a striking and yes, foreboding image.
By the end of the pilot, Donelle is dead. In a twist and tragedy, Eddie’s responsible (which will lead to an IA investigation in the second episode, as well as the incursion of a civil rights activist full of outrage at yet another police shooting). But even as Lincoln Heights avoids a happy ending for the banger (who could have used one, frankly), it remains attached to the too-neat domestic resolution (at least four in this single episode), simplifying complexities in the way that “family shows” like to do.