It’s hard for a writer to let go of a good idea that didn’t work the first time out. That’s why, from time to time, you’ll see a TV producer present a new show very obviously inspired by a past project that failed. On very rare occasions – Joss Whedon turning “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” into a TV show after he was unhappy with how the movie was directed – the second time’s the charm. More often, though, you get something like “The Black Donnellys” – Paul Haggis using his Oscar juice to do another show like his brilliant-but-canceled ’90s CBS drama “EZ Street,” to similar ratings and lifespan.
Will CBS’ “Golden Boy” (it debuts tonight at 10) be another second chance to fail with the same broad idea for producer Greg Berlanti? Or has he found the right tweak to the formula this time out?
In the mid-’00s, back when there was still a WB network, Berlanti was one of the creators of “Jack & Bobby,” a fine young drama about a pair of young brothers, one of whom would grow up to become President of the United States, while the other would be dead long before that happened. Each episode was framed with documentary-style interviews about the presidential brother, filmed many decades in the future, while the present-day scenes of them in adolescence were used to draw a line between boy and man. It was an interesting idea, and a show filled with fine performances, but the WB’s target demographic unsurprisingly wasn’t interested in the political angle, and “Jack & Bobby” lasted a single season.
Now Berlanti’s back with “Golden Boy,” which asks the commercially-savvy question, “What if we took ‘Jack & Bobby’ and made it a cop show on CBS?”
The show, produced by Berlanti and Nicholas Wootton, toggles between the present, when cocky New York cop Walter Clark (Theo James) has just been promoted to detective after his performance in a highly-publicized shootout, and seven years in the future, when Clark has become the youngest commissioner in NYPD history. Like “Jack & Bobby,” each episode is framed by those future scenes, as the older Clark explains the lesson he learned over the course of working the case we see in the present-day material.
It’s certainly a better marriage of genre and network than “Jack & Bobby” was, and the framework does just enough to distinguish “Golden Boy” from the five dozen other CBS cop shows of the moment, many of them set in New York. (After a few weeks airing after “NCIS: LA,” the series will be moved to Fridays at 9, leading into “Blue Bloods.”) As a longtime writer/producer on “NYPD Blue” – he was one of the people steering the ship in the final years after David Milch left – Wootton knows the subject very well. And James (you might know him as Lady Mary’s doomed lover Mr. Pamuk from “Downton Abbey”) works very well with his ever-reliable co-star Chi McBride, who plays veteran detective Don Owen, a burn-out case who turns out to be the ideal partner for a kid looking to take every shortcut possible on his way to the top.
That said, neither of the series’ two eras is perfect. The future scenes hint at a kind of mythology that you don’t usually associate with CBS dramas, but they’re primarily interested in underlining the moral of each story with the boldest ink possible. And that lack of subtlety extends itself to the 2013 scenes, as well, where Clark gets in a rivalry with Tony Arroyo (Kevin Alejandro), who was the squad’s brightest star until Clark’s arrival. Though the writers are willing to let Clark be a morally shady character to a point, there’s no ambiguity at all to Arroyo, a cartoon villain who’s fueled entirely by jealousy and macho pride.
But James and McBride make music together in the way you want any fictional cop partners to – the series was originally conceived as a clear single-lead vehicle and evolved into more of a buddy show once the chemistry became obvious – and it’s a solid, meat-and-potatoes police procedural, and one that could potentially evolve into more depending on how the flash-forwards are used down the road.
But even if “Golden Boy” doesn’t work out – say, that it suffers the one-and-done fate of last spring’s “NYC 22” – that won’t do anything to stop the next series creator from saying, “You know, that idea I used on my last show was just too good to throw out yet.”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org