For all that broadcast TV’s power has attenuated in recent years, what they choose to put on still means something — and, from a certain point of view, something more than the choices made by prestige outlets. After all, the reach of broadcasters is without parallel. They’re simply in that many more homes than prestige cablers and streamers, even as their peak audience (or even their audience five years ago) seems unattainable now.
Which makes it important and worth noting when a network makes a choice more ambitious than the mix of family comedies and procedurals that still performs well enough. Not every element of CBS’s new drama “The Red Line,” about the aftermath of a police shooting in Chicago, works perfectly, but the show is trying to do something unusual in today’s landscape — use the big, broad emotional strokes of broadcast at its best to usher the viewer into a story of minute social divisions. Its story of three families — one mourning the death of their father, one dealing with a son’s culpability as the cop who pulled the trigger, and one pulled by politics and Shakespearean complications into both — rings true even as it develops endless complication. Co-produced by TV maestro Greg Berlanti and director Ava DuVernay, the story combines the pair’s strengths: The plainspokenness of Berlanti’s work and the nuance of DuVernay’s meld into a story whose strength comes in part from the audience it may potentially reach.
The pilot follows Harrison Brennan (Corey Reynolds) on his way home from work at the hospital where he practices medicine; he’s coming home to partner Daniel (Noah Wyle of “ER”) and their daughter Jira (Aliyah Royale), but not before he grabs milk at a corner store that happens to be the exact wrong place to be. Caught up in a robbery, Brennan — the character we’ve been following but, also and fatally, a black man in the crosshairs — ends up shot and killed by rookie cop Paul Evans (Noel Fisher). Evans is a rookie character we’ve barely met yet but whose rage and impetuousness we’ll come to know well; we follow him, as well as Brennan’s immediate family, as both come to terms with the aftermath.
But there are no false equivalencies here: Evans’s decision is transparently something more hideous than an earnest mistake, and family and friends’ attempting to shield him from his own actions only exacerbates the sense of serious wrong having been done. And Daniel and Jira’s mourning process includes reckoning with the fact that Jira, a young black woman who joined the family through adoption, has lost the parent who was able to identify with her feelings of unsafety. That the third family in the story is anchored by Tia Jones (Emayatzy Corinealdi, delivering the most impressive performance on a show with several to boast), a rising politician who is also Jira’s biological mother, only emphasizes the loss Daniel and Jira have suffered, and its unfairness.
These big and broad concepts — fairness, racial division, physical safety — affect us all. And that makes them the perfect topics for a show like this one to tackle; that they’re often approached through expository dialogue in which each character has a point to clearly carry across only emphasizes that the goals of this show are different from the goals of a version that might have aired on FX or Hulu. Here, the mission is to catalyze conversation, and the crystalline moral stakes fulfill that mission beautifully. (Also, there are complications one might not expect CBS to include: Wyle’s inclusion on this show signals its populist goals, but his playing the gay father of a black daughter suggests a willingness to push towards an honesty about modern life that some conservative viewers might wholesale reject.) In all, “The Red Line” harnesses the power of simple storytelling calibrated towards the masses to probe painful social concerns, and to potentially change hearts and minds. Now, one hopes, its audience will meet it where it is.
“The Red Line.” CBS. April 28. Eight episodes (all screened for review).
Cast: Noah Wyle, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Noel Fisher, Howard Charles, Aliyah Royale, Michael Patrick Thornton, Vinny Chhibber, and Elizabeth Laidlaw.
Executive Producers: Greg Berlanti, Ava DuVernay, Sarah Schechter, Caitlin Parrish, Sunil Nayar, and Kevin Hooks.