CBS’ “NYC 22” (Sunday at 10 p.m.) is one of the last new series to debut on the broadcast networks this season. Looking back on some of the swill we were served earlier in the season — “Work It,” “The Playboy Club,” “I Hate My Teenage Daughter,” etc. — it’s far, far from the worst member of the freshman class. But it’s among the most disappointing.
Here’s a cop drama created by Richard Price, who between books (“Clockers”) and TV series (“The Wire”) has been involved in some of the most vividly-told police stories of the last 20 years. Robert DeNiro is attached as a producer. The pilot was directed by James Mangold, whose “Cop Land” didn’t entirely work but had a terrific sense of atmosphere and attention to detail. The cast includes interesting actors like Adam Goldberg and Terry Kinney.
And yet all of these people have come together for an incredibly generic, cliché-ridden series about rookie beat cops in the NYPD that too often feels like its main inspiration was other cop shows. Aside from the New York location shooting, it’s virtually indistinguishable from ABC’s cheap summer import series “Rookie Blue.”
Goldberg and Kinney were two of the co-stars on ABC’s short-lived “The Unusuals,” which looked at the culture of the NYPD through the eyes of the detectives. It was at times too self-consciously quirky, but it felt specific, both about its characters and about New York, and it went before its time.(*) Given Price’s prior work, and the premise, I had hoped for a kind of uniform version of that show, or an East Coast counterpart to “Southland, which premiered in the same week as “The Unusuals” and has evolved into a terrific series in its TNT incarnation.
(*) And as I can never resist pointing out whenever discussing “The Unusuals,” that show starred Jeremy Renner right before “The Hurt Locker” was going to hit theaters. ABC could have had that guy under contract for years. Instead, they cut the show, and him, loose, and now he’s starring in every major action franchise there is.
But at best, it’s a companion piece to “Blue Bloods” — and, frankly, not as distinctive as anything I saw that show do back when I was still watching last season — filled with easily-digestible stories and, especially, characters.
Rather than let us gradually get to know our six rookies and their personality, the show instantly lays out colorful backstories for the six, and in several cases colorful nicknames. Leelee Sobieski’s Jennifer “White House” Perry, for instance, is a former MP who fought in Iraq, while her partner, Harold House Moore’s Jayson “Jackpot” Toney was an NBA bust who blew out his knee, learned humility and enrolled in the police academy. Goldberg plays a very old rookie, Ray “Lazarus” Harper(**),a longtime police reporter looking to reinvent himself after being laid off by his newspaper. We also have the latest in an NYPD dynasty (Stark Sands), an Afghani immigrant (Tom Reed) and the one law-abiding member of a family of drug dealers (Judy Marte).
(**) Ray’s the worst offender of the nickname bunch, in that he’s the one who tells everyone to call him “Lazarus.” This is not how nicknames are supposed to work in polite society. If you have to give it to yourself, you don’t deserve to be called it.
Not only do we find out these backstories through a series of clunky exchanges within the first 15 minutes of the premiere, but these stories come to define virtually everything each character does and says. Everyone Jackpot encounters gives him grief about what a selfish player he was, while Marte’s character is less tolerant of minor crime than the others because she’s so self-conscious about her upbringing.
The one character who actually feels like a person is their training officer, Daniel Dean (Terry Kinney), whom everyone calls “Yoda” behind his back. It’s not even that Yoda seems all that multi-faceted, but that he’s more than just a collection of interesting tics and biographic details.
Even though the characters are broadly-drawn, there are still interesting stories to tell about being a rookie cop in general and one in New York in particular. But though the characters are stationed in Harlem, and the show filmed on city streets, there’s really no sense of atmosphere, nothing that ever feels distinctly New York. Nor do the cops make rookie mistakes that feel particularly interesting, let alone original.
Where “Southland” learned after a while that it could get away with episodes that were just a collection of anecdotes about life in a patrol car, “NYC 22” feels the need to contrive stories to keep each set of characters busy for the whole hour, or sometimes over several hours. So the legacy case falls for a local woman whose younger brother is a hanger-on in a gang, and keeps trying to get the kid out of trouble, despite his father’s disapproval. Or we’ll see two of the rookies be sent to a crime scene where they’re told, “Let the detectives crack the case” — which, inevitably, means that they wind up cracking the case.
I know this is a weird thing to say about a TV show, but “NYC 22” feels like the TV version of the show it wants to be. I’ve been watching cop shows for a long, long time, and I’m struggling to think of a time in my life where this couldn’t have aired, with minimal changes (if it needed any at all).
But that’s probably what CBS — the most traditional, reliable of all the broadcast networks — wanted. Formula has done very well for them over the years, though usually it’s better-executed formula than this. It may even be the show Price and company wanted to make, and it’s easy to imagine it living a decent lifespan on CBS, doing annual crossovers with “Blue Bloods” and/or “CSI: NY,” telling its familiar stories in familiar ways.
With the talent involved, “NYC 22” could have been much more than it is, even if most or all involved are fine with what it became.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org