CBS Series Shows Limits of Police Procedurals  

Arriving two years after anti-police brutality protests ushered in a surge of self-examination around Hollywood’s enduring love affair with cop shows, CBS’ East New York tries to have it both ways.

On the one hand, it’s a procedural in the familiar hero-officer mold, focusing on a righteous protagonist doing everything in her power to do right by the community she’s serving. On the other, it tries, gingerly, to grapple with thorny issues like the inequality of criminal justice in America and the deeply damaged relationship between civilians and law enforcement. But there’s only so far the series is able or willing to push up against the limits of its own genre, and East New York proves to be far more successful in replicating its comforts than in tackling its dark side.

East New York

The Bottom Line

A solid cop procedural that tries, with limited success, to brave thorny territory.

Airdate: 9:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2 (CBS)
Cast: Amanda Warren, Jimmy Smits, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Kevin Rankin, Richard Kind, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Lavel Schley, Olivia Luccardi
Creators: Mike Flynn, William Finkelstein

While far from the first police drama to acknowledge the shortcomings of the institution, East New York makes those failings central to its premise. In the premiere, Deputy Inspector Regina Haywood (Amanda Warren) takes up a new post in charge of the 74th Precinct — based in the racially diverse working-class neighborhood that gives the series its title — with a clear-eyed understanding of where the NYPD is falling short, and big ideas about how they can do better.

She encourages her officers to move into the very projects they patrol, bristles against top-down pressure to prioritize cases involving the already privileged, does away with traffic-ticket quotas in an effort to redirect her team’s energy toward the more serious crimes plaguing the neighborhood. Meanwhile, she defends her position against colleagues who regard her as a diversity hire and a political establishment threatened by her authority as a woman, as well as against citizens whose distrust of law enforcement East New York presents as both bone-deep and basically understandable.

If the argument put forth by activists has been that bad policing is more than a matter of just “a few bad apples,” East New York‘s optimistic rejoinder is that a few good apples might be all it takes to save an institution from rot. That it’s presented as an overwhelming challenge only renders Regina and her allies more heroic, by positioning them as selfless underdogs. In contrast to stereotypes of police as power-tripping loose cannons, Regina is the type of boss who dresses down her detectives (Elizabeth Rodriguez’s Morales and Kevin Rankin’s Killian) for trying to steamroll a suspect who asks for a lawyer, and scolds an officer (Olivia Luccardi’s Quinlan) for threatening to retaliate against a neighbor who’s spray-painted “PIG” on her apartment door.

It’s a reassuring vision, for a certain type of viewer, and within that framework East New York does just fine at what it’s trying to do. The first two episodes have the workmanlike polish of a show built by people who know what they’re doing. Which they are: East New York‘s creators are Mike Flynn (Power Book III: Raising Kanan) and William Finkelstein (whose experience with cop shows spans three decades and includes NYPD Blue and Law & Order). What minor bits of awkwardness mar the premiere — like the cheesiness of an early shooting scene — are effectively counteracted by an appealing cast of veteran actors and characterizations able to strike a promising balance between flawed and sympathetic, relatable and quirky.

Warren’s Regina, who spends a chunk of the first episode in a red coat that flutters behind her like a superhero’s cape, serves up a mix of righteousness and stubbornness that’s hard to root against — even when she’s pitted against her more pragmatic mentor Suarez, played with appealing gravitas by NYPD Blue alum Jimmy Smits. Richard Kind’s Yenko, Regina’s executive officer, immediately establishes himself as the lovable one by introducing himself as the annoying one, and seems to spend more of his time onscreen bidding on classic cars and practicing Italian than doing actual police work. Some of Regina’s team rank higher than others on the likability spectrum, but all are blessed with sharp minds and essentially good hearts.

Amid such company, it’s easy enough to fall back into the well-worn rhythms of the police procedural: of high-stakes cases wrapped up in tidy 40something minute increments, of coworkers affectionately ribbing each other on the job, of montages of soothing competence punctuated by the occasional jolt of violent action. Though it hasn’t yet reached the heights of Law & Order at its most addictive, it’s a solid addition to the canon of police dramas — and its sturdy foundation should allow for plenty of growth over the course of the season as the characters and the world around them deepen further still.

Where East New York falls short is in trying to forge riskier, newer paths. The series seems acutely aware that there’s only so far a cop show can go in reexamining policing without breaking it completely. Calling out the disparate treatment of a wealthy victim versus a working-class one is one thing; pointing out that the former’s whiteness and the latter’s Blackness may have also had something to do with it is apparently a bridge too far, given the reluctance of even a character as opinionated Regina to point it out. The inclusion of a thin blue line flag among the props cluttering Regina’s desk feels like a statement in itself, but whether it denotes support for Blue Lives Matter or an attempt to reclaim the symbol from its ugliest associations, this show is unwilling to say.

To be sure, it’s impossible to judge a full season based on two episodes, and East New York could yet gain the confidence to start pushing the envelope a little further. That said, a second-episode scene in which a man emotionally thanks the police for doing their jobs so he wouldn’t have to take matters into his own hands via unforgivable violence would seem a pretty strong indication of what this show wants its viewers to think of the institution it’s presenting, and the stories it’s telling about them.

In East New York‘s view, policing may be broken, but these are the well-meaning, law-abiding cops who are going to fix it. This idea provides the series with the faint sheen of progressiveness while allowing it to maintain the stance that nothing really needs to change on a fundamental level, beyond perhaps some personnel changes and a closer adherence to the rules. Two years ago, the question Hollywood faced was of how they might evolve their portrayals of policing in the wake of loud, sustained and justified outrage. East New York stands as a representation of that change, and of its limits.

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