“The Equalizer” represents both a variation of its genre and as straight up a CBS drama as they come. Borne out of the cult ‘80s CBS show starring Edward Woodward and 2014 blockbuster starring Denzel Washington, the 2021 iteration of “The Equalizer” mashes the two versions together to create a basic show that leans on its star to keep things interesting. It’s easy to understand why CBS would bank on that combination working in the traditionally buzzy post-Super Bowl slot; it’s less clear if this first episode will be uniquely gripping enough to capture a big enough audience to justify the choice.
Like Woodward and Washington before her, Latifah’s Equalizer is a former special agent who decides to help people more directly, bypassing supervision and the ensuing bureaucratic red tape altogether. When we first meet her, however, Robyn McCall is mostly just restless; her main activities are shuttling her teenage daughter (Laya DeLeon Hayes) to school and trading gentle banter with her aunt (Lorraine Toussaint, woefully underused in the otherwise crowded pilot episode). And yet when her former mentor William (a suitably smirky Chris Noth) tries to convince her to join his lucrative private security firm, she refuses. She’s not interested in going back to the CIA, which led her to a catastrophically bungled job in Afghanistan, nor in selling out. Instead, she wants to help “the people I couldn’t save” — a desire that almost immediately pans out as William walks away and a distressed young woman in need of saving crosses her path.
As developed by Andrew Marlowe and Terri Miller, this version of “The Equalizer” makes an effort to set itself apart from the others while also lining up with what one might expect from a CBS drama. Its hero is hardened but quippy, throwing out lines like, “you can’t buy back trust” and countering the insistence that “everyone has a price” with narrowed eyes and a deadpanned, “not me.” She quickly calls on her friends — a bespectacled hacker and wisecracking sharpshooter — to help her with the case of the week, forming an underground team that will be recognizable to anyone well-versed in network procedurals. (That holds especially true given the fact that they’re played by Adam Goldberg and Liza Lapira, two charming actors who are extremely familiar with broadcast ensemble shows.) The fight scenes are efficient and perfunctory, and the case high stakes but simple enough to get solved in 40 minutes or less. And yes, of course The Equalizer ends up running away from a building as it explodes into flames. By the end of the first episode, it’s clear that the show is less of a brand new take on “The Equalizer” than it is a straight up take on a CBS procedural about a rogue agent with a heart of gold.
The major difference that “The Equalizer” is then banking on to set it apart from the rest of the network’s lineup is the fact that its center of gravity is Latifah, an executive producer and genuine star who has no trouble shrugging on this latest role. A scene late in the pilot, in which Robyn gently but firmly tells her daughter that society’s odds don’t favor Black girls, also underlines the show’s true motivating premise: that Robyn is a Black woman trying to do right by people who too often fall through the cracks. Absent any particularly interesting twists on the procedural tradition from whence it came, this “Equalizer” will do well to flesh out the specificity of the woman driving it.
“The Equalizer” premieres Feb. 7 after the Super Bowl on CBS.