Friday, July 16, 2021

Wrookie Wreck

Have you ever followed a TV show that you almost wanted to end because you couldn't stand what hack writers were doing with characters you liked? Welcome to my relationship with the Nathan Fillion-led The Rookie, which has wrapped its third season.

The last episode aired more than a couple of months ago, so I think I can discuss it freely as most people who want to watch it and who read this blog (Venn Diagram generator: "Error. One set cannot be a zero or negative number") will have done so. Just in case, spoilers ahead.

The Rookie, for those unfamiliar, deals with John Nolan, a man who at 45 decided he wanted to change his life and make more of a difference than he could owning his business. He moved to Los Angeles and applied to join the police department, becoming its oldest rookie. His watch command sergeant (Sgt. Grey) wants him to fail because he doesn't want to deal with a stream of similar applicants if he succeeds. Over the course of three seasons, Nolan adapts to life as a rookie police officer, bringing to the table life experiences that both handicap and enhance his work. He and his fellow rookies, Jackson West and Lucy Chen, learn that proper policing demands a melange of skills well beyond yelling, "Freeze, dirtbag!" Matching its star, Fillion, the show's default setting is wry. Serious things happen, but they are filtered though a mildly ironic, "Ain't life peculiar" lens that allows light banter to co-exist with life-and-death storylines.

The characters and casting are very good. Richard T. Jones as Sgt. Grey begins by wanting Nolan to fail only his personal honor and integrity make him do everything he can to help him succeed, just as he would for any new officer. Titus Makin, Jr., as second-generation cop Jackson West, moves from over-driven overachiever to someone who can be happy succeeding for himself rather than his family legacy. As Lucy Chen Melissa O'Neil, like Fillion a spaceship captain on a show that ended too early, gains a sense of her inner strength when pushed extra-hard by her training officer, Tim Bradford (Eric Winter). Alyssa Diaz as West's training officer, Angela Lopez, is also tough and no-nonsense but ambitious to advance in the department. Lopez's character gained some of these characteristics when Nolan's first training officer, Talia Bishop, was written out of the show. Previously, she had been shown to be ambitious for advancement almost to a fault, but actress Afton Williamson left the show after her accusations of racial and sexual harrassment were not supported by an investigation. Nolan's new training officer, Nyla Harper (Mekia Cox) already is a detective but has gone back into uniform in order to demonstrate a more stable life situation in custody arrangements with her daughter. She has much of the same exasperation with Nolan as Bishop did.

It's been in season three that I started having serious flashes of wanting the show to be canceled so that these well-conceived and likable characters, who are a heck of a lot of fun when properly written, could stop being kicked around by script hackery. During the COVID-extended break between Season 2 and Season 3, nationwide protests questioned the role and even existence of police departments. Shows that featured laudable police officers as heroes earned the derisive nickname "cop-aganda," mocked as attempts to humanize the racist structure that they both participated in and upheld.

Rookie writers pre-emptively defended themselves by creating several storylines that acknowledged racial problems and the way police were seen by some people to exacerbate those problems. Fortunately, our core cast were either educable or already woke. The two most hacktastic of these storylines involved West and Nolan.

With Lopez promoted to detective, West receives Doug Stanton (Brandon Routh) as his new training officer (TO). Stanton is uncovered as a racist, though, abusing his authority to short-circuit West's attempts to report his bullying treatment of people of color. Eventually Stanton overplays his hand when he hangs back to let West be beaten by a street gang instead of backing him up, and he is fired. For some unaccountable reason, the show reinstates him for an episode only to have the evidence he abandoned West shown to other officers and making him a pariah.

This is a storyline larded with problems. For one, the casting. Set aside the fact that Routh's most famous roles have been Superman and Ray Palmer, two straight-arrow good-guy super-heroes. He's just too nice-appearing of a guy. Of course otherwise nice people can show themselves as racists when the opportunity presents. But trying to make Routh a racist bully works as well as putting a Klan hood on Howdy Doody. He's further hampered by modern-day script constraints that don't let him speak the language of racism and by the show's insistence on showing how his racism is hidden until he confronts black and hispanic members of the public. Watch any handful of NYPD Blue episodes and you'll know that Dennis Franz's Det. Andy Sipowicz is a racist. He'll say something racist -- up to and including the N-bomb. Or he'll lock horns with his African-American commanding officer, Lt. Arthur Fancy, in a conflict that clearly has racial dimensions. He'll make a racial joke, etc.

Compared to Blue, Rookie's racial storyline is an almost laughable attempt to handle a very serious matter. Part of that is the way that modern society doesn't really want to help people change if they harbor harmful racial attitudes -- it just wants them out of sight. Blue's creators didn't accept racism any more than do The Rookie's. They were, though, willing to show a character learn and change. The Rookie's showrunners produced scripts that seemed like they just wanted to check a box and move on -- maybe because that's all they knew how to do. Even though I like The Rookie and even though Blue was a pretty tired and formulaic show in its final seasons, almost any Blue writer is going to type rings around the ones who dreamed up and handled the Stanton storyline. Plus, while there's nothing wrong with Titus Makin and Brandon Routh, their acting chops are well below Dennis Franz and James McDaniel, who played Fancy. They're not able to take clunky, artificial situations, dialogue and interactions and make them seem realistic.

The other "anti-copaganda" line concerns the way Nolan learns from both a prickly community organizer and the professor of a night class he's taking how some police officers take actions that make situations worse for minorities, even without intending to do so. The organizer counters Nolan's clueless and ham-fisted attempts to "help" by explaining to him how different life is for the people of the neighborhood, and the professor challenges some of Nolan's naive assumptions about how good police officers help rather than harm a community. Neither of these lines are particularly bad and there is a great deal of truth to them. But in episode 11, Nolan must protect his professor when she is targeted by a group of white supremacist terrorists to be kidnapped, placed on "trial" and executed on video. While there are way too many white supremacist groups ("zero" is the preferred number, FYI), none of them operate in the ISIS-like fashion described here. Not only is placing the professor character in danger a hackneyed, tired move to begin with, it's done with few nods to reality in its execution.

The season cliffhanger has Lopez, who is now pregnant, preparing to marry the father with all of the main cast present -- only to be kidnapped by thugs working for La Fiera, a female drug kingpin with whom she has crossed paths before. How did La Fiera escape custody? Because in this reality, a multimillionaire drug kingpin with hundreds of gangsters on her payroll was driven from the police station to prison in an ordinary patrol car with two officers inside. Since she's pregnant, and since La Fiera lost her son when people trying to kill her shot him instead and since Lopez confronted her about how the situation that allowed that to happen was her fault? I expect much back and forth between the women about the baby, and perhaps a teary storyline wrap-up where La Fiera's maternal instincts prevent her from actually killing or harming Lopez. Season three started with the hacktastic resolution to season two's cliffhanger, and it ends with yet another delivery of plot-holes of all shapes and sizes. It has moments when it remembers it's a show that leans heavily on likable characters and clever writing, but they're coming around less often.

So as I mentioned, I find myself torn. I like this show. But a growing part of me wants The Rookie to be canceled so these nice people I like can stop being smacked around by the group of hacks in the show's writer's room. Of course, the best option is that season four corrects these kinds of blunders and feels OK about being a show that generally holds police in a positive light. I'm afraid, though, that no one will buy that storyline.

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