“Tommy,” a new cop drama on CBS, creates its stakes through a sort of gender essentialism. Its protagonist isn’t just the first woman to be the chief of police in Los Angeles; she polices, perhaps, in a more gentle and thoughtful manner than a man in her position might.
Which is not to say that Tommy, the somewhat ostentatiously nicknamed protagonist (legal name Abigail Thomas) played by Edie Falco, isn’t credible in uniform. Falco brings a familiar crispness to her work here, a willingness to banter but refusal to endure incompetence. But her top cop is so empathetic to, at times, defy belief, both in her work and in her personal life.
Tommy’s impulse, for instance, when dealing with a case in which a child and mother vulnerable to ICE have been separated is not merely to stand in the way of ICE — which perhaps could be one possible response for a police officer, if somewhat below the pay grade of a police chief — but to bring the child into her own custody, taking her home for a time to live with Tommy’s adult daughter. Empathy is one thing; surrealism is another, not least because it creates an impression for viewers whose interactions with police are limited and benign that this is a normal or at least possible state of affairs.
The thrust of Tommy’s character is that she was brought to Los Angeles, after a corruption scandal in that city, to reinvent how things are done. (Making this the third show of the year so far, after Fox’s “Deputy” and “9-1-1: Lone Star,” to depict a branch of public services being taken over by a charismatic outsider explicitly meant to be an agent of change.) Tommy was, for many years before, a New York City cop. She may not have gone too far after all: Not merely does she have another New Yorker-in-exile coworker to banter about “real New York City slices” with, the show’s shot-in-New York locations can’t quite green-screen their way to balmy L.A. realness. But her perspective is meant to be different.
But there’s different and then there’s reinventing policing, a commitment Tommy doesn’t seem to realize she’s making. Her constant presence at whatever breaking scene is unfolding is explained away in that it’s her responsibility, as a cop, to be wherever crime is happening. As such, she seems to perform basically no oversight, and her department seems to shift in a sort of intuitive response to her kind and caring nature rather than through any proactive choice she makes. It’s an easy way to let the character, and the show, off the hook as regards making any argument larger than its very narrow premise.
Where the show does best is in its treatment of Tommy’s private life. In depicting her tentative reconnection with her adult daughter (Olivia Lucy Phillip), a Angeleno-by-choice who left her work-crazed mom behind long ago, the show hits familiar beats nicely. And in showing her still-more-uncertain interactions with women (Tommy is, incidentally, a lesbian, a detail whose easy sublimation into the show’s CBS-procedural texture feels pleasant and welcome), the show gives us a picture of a person whose confidence is conditional, and which vanishes when out of uniform.
Tommy, in these moments, has all the vulnerability of someone we feel we might actually know. A problem the show has yet to solve is that the kind of power she exercises when in uniform would tend to make her unknowable, and keeping her as open and big-hearted in every moment of the show’s running time defies belief, after years of news stories about the manners in which cops are often out of step with the communities they serve. But Falco’s stern but hardly humorless performance provides reason to hope that this credibility gap gets bridged.