CBS has positioned its new drama The Red Line to get slaughtered.
The limited series, boasting Greg Berlanti and Ava DuVernay among its prestige producers, is airing its eight episodes in binge-friendly two-hour Sunday blocks over the next month. As any casual TV observer can tell you, that puts The Red Line head-to-head with the last four plus-size episodes of Game of Thrones.
This is not a competition that The Red Line is going to win in any tangible measure and yet I like to think that CBS is making a pointed statement with this scheduling. While Game of Thrones is hooking the masses with its depiction of a timeless epic power struggle in a fantastical kingdom of dragons, zombies and generally condoned incest, The Red Line is saying, “Here’s what’s happening right now, with actual people in a real city in the center of our real country.” It’s an ambitious drama that puts TV’s most watched broadcast network in a comical underdog position, as the niche programmer against HBO’s populist behemoth.
I dig that about The Red Line. It’s a show with flaws aplenty. At times I’m not even sure that it’s all that good, but damned if it isn’t the kind of show I wish broadcast networks had the guts to do more frequently.
Actually created by Caitlin Parrish and Erica Weiss, The Red Line focuses on what happens after a white Chicago cop (Noel Fisher, solid in the part Hollywood thinks he was born to play) kills an unarmed black doctor who was simply trying to help a convenience store clerk after a robbery. The title refers to the L-train that runs north/south through Chicago, a rapid transit connection of some of the most racially and economically stratified neighborhoods in one of the country’s most racially and economically stratified cities.
The shooting is what connects most of our main characters. The victim’s husband Daniel (Noah Wyle) and adopted daughter Jira (Aliyah Royale) are mourning their loss and looking for justice. The tragedy occurs just as Tia Young (Emayatzy Corinealdi) is beginning a campaign for ward alderman against an entrenched incumbent (Glynn Turman), a race that’s about to be complicated by Tia reaching out to Jira as her birth mother. Meanwhile, we’re also spending time with Fisher’s Officer Evans, part of a multigenerational police family that includes brother Jim (Michael Patrick Thornton), partially paralyzed in the line of duty.
The other main character in The Red Line is, as that hoary cliche goes, the city of Chicago, and the series’ directors, including pilot helmer Victoria Mahoney and producing director Kevin Hooks, do a mixed-to-positive job with that character. Much of the time, the series does well capturing the differences between Chicago neighborhoods, delivering on-the-ground authenticity of a Windy City that’s heating up along ideological lines and yet shifting into the chill of winter. But then there are the incessant and uninspired drone establishing shots that technology has made way too easy for TV shows and documentaries to utilize without informative value. I’m not 100 percent certain, but I think there’s one drone shot of the Chicago skyline with passing clouds (probably CG) that The Red Line uses four different times in eight episodes. If not identical, it’s a shot similar enough to jar me out of the series because of how little it adds and how it turned “This is Chicago!” from something specific to something generic.
This is representative of a lot of The Red Line, a show that does many of the big things extremely well only to undermine them with glaring and avoidable stumbles.
The Red Line is doubly dull, albeit completely, earnestly and well-meaningly dull, in the elements that are presented initially as most central. The show has almost no interest in the legal side of the case against Officer Evans, either the grand jury process or the evidence that could doom or exonerate him. It also has only a perfunctory interest in Tia’s political race, though there’s always fun in Turman chewing scenery malevolently or in characters barking truisms that begin with “There’s an old Chicago saying….” Make no mistake, the show has things to say about how Chicago became a national whipping boy — usually from only one side of the political aisle — and embodiment of urban violence and decay, and about the city’s very real institutional problems. But this is not The Wire. As well as the show does rounding out most of its primary characters, nearly every episode includes multiple cartoonish secondary prosecuting attorneys, parasitic reporters and sneering cops who render complicated issues black-and-white.
Instead, the show wants to be about people and their connectivity, the things that bring us together rather than tear us apart, and it’s in the intersectionality of elements that it comes alive. The uncomfortable new blended family featuring Tia, her Red Line conductor husband Ethan (a very good Howard Charles), Daniel and Jira is prickly, uncomfortable and never simple in a way that is wholly believable. Daniel’s discomfort at being, as a white man, a poster boy for the injustice that killed his husband, is complicated and the kind of thing a lesser show wouldn’t even consider. The Red Line has beats on the gentrifying of Chicago’s gay neighborhoods, a Muslim character’s discomfort within the gay community and whether or not Tia’s education makes her an outsider in her community that stand out as fresher and more nuanced than many of the more obvious, headline-ripping issues of a plot peppered with “That’s just dumb” implausibilities.
Even if his character is uncomfortable anchoring a media narrative, Wyle is in control as the decent, emotionally wrecked center of this TV show. If Wyle’s a hair too stern and stolid, it works because Daniel has to be a rock for his daughter and Royale’s inexperience and lack of polish add to an unsteady character still searching for her identity. It is a borderline disgrace that Corinealdi, one of the standouts in the 2016 remake of Roots, has been so generally wasted by Hollywood subsequently and needed her Middle of Nowhere director DuVernay to give her a part this substantive. When I finally gave in and got a little teary in the eighth and final Red Line episode, it was Corinealdi who pushed me there. Also giving the finale a boost is Elizabeth Laidlaw as Officer Evans’ partner, making the most of a scene that reconciles what had previously been one of the show’s more infuriating characters.
The eight-episode, 42-minute-per-episode format shows its limitation in the number of characters who go undeveloped or underdeveloped. Jira, for example, has a pair of friends. One is gender nonbinary. One is Asian. Neither has a voice or interiority of their own, they’re just kinda around. That’s also the case, for the first few episodes, with Vinny Chhibber as Liam, one of Daniel’s fellow teachers who’s just lurking on the periphery annoyingly for half the series and then suddenly became one of my favorite characters, which can’t be said of Jira’s token buddies. Who knows which of the weak background figures might have improved with 55-minute running times or a 13-episode order?
Like I said, The Red Line isn’t a thing broadcast TV generally does well and it isn’t a thing that CBS generally does well, but there’s no inherent reason why it shouldn’t be. More like this and better, please.
Cast: Noah Wyle, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Aliyah Royale, Noel Fisher, Vinny Chhibber, Michael Patrick Thornton, Howard Charles, Elizabeth Laidlaw
Creators: Caitlin Parrish & Erica Weiss
Airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS, starting April 28.