'The Rookie': TV Review

Thin premise has room for improvement.
10/16/2018

ABC's new police procedural is basically a Nathan Fillion delivery system.

Nathan Fillion's cross-generational appeal and comic timing are on display in one of the best TV shows to air this October, a series that upends genre expectations and finds surprising drama beneath what seems to be an accessibly comic exterior.

I'm referring, of course, to Netflix's remarkable Big Mouth, in which Fillion makes frequent hilarious animated cameos as former Firefly star Nathan Fillion, subject of Missy's romantic fantasies.

Fillion also stars in The Rookie, a new ABC police procedural dramedy that isn't nearly as unconventional, but probably delivers enough of what Fillion does well to satisfy the most desperate of Castle obsessives.

The Rookie hails from longtime Castle veteran Alexi Hawley and features Fillion as John Nolan, introduced as the proprietor of a small-town Pennsylvania construction company, who, after experiencing the adrenaline of a bank robbery as he's going through the misery of a divorce, decides to pack up his life, move to Los Angeles and become the LAPD's oldest rookie. Why did this midlife crisis lead him to law enforcement? It's fuzzy. Why did it lead him to L.A.? It's basically unclear. How old is John supposed to be? Well, his disapproving superior Wade Grey (Richard T. Jones) keeps making jokes about him being 40, but it's hard to tell if The 40-Year-Old Virgin has simply set the framework for such jokes and Nolan may be a few (more plausible) years older.

The series tries, with limited success, to be both a star vehicle for Fillion and also an ensemble. It doesn't pay off in the pilot, creating too many characters and too many plotlines for a rhythm to ever get properly established, yet I understand the desire to at least try to establish a full supporting universe given that I watched over 170 episodes of Castle without being able to tell you the name of the two cops who worked with Castle and Beckett from the very first episode on.

Here, the pilot uses the first day of training for a trio of rookie cops to introduce Nolan along with with Jackson West (Titus Makin), son of an LAPD Internal Affairs commander, and Lucy Chen (Melissa O'Neil), whose badass first appearance is later undermined by a romantic subplot stuck between "icky" and "unconvincing." Each of the rookies is paired with an established training officer, led by Eric Winter's unsavory Bradford and the competitive Lopez (Alyssa Diaz) and Bishop (Afton Williamson).

"Everything is a test!" Bishop bellows as part of a pilot in which, over the course of two days, these rookies rush through a steady churn of crimes in which characterization and drama take a distant backseat to making sure that every single second offers a teachable moment. There's no build to a pilot that feels like it peaks 25 minutes in and then keeps repeating the same things in service of a big question — "Will Sgt. Grey successfully run John Nolan out of the LAPD?" — that is a foregone conclusion. Since we know that John is going to continue on this personal quest, there being no show if he doesn't, there's a lot of bending over backwards to illustrate how his life experiences might make him a good police officer, right down to a scene in which he uses his construction background and awareness of the correct location of circuit breakers to find a hidden drug stash. It's flimsy at best, just as when the pilot pauses for an extended shootout, you know that they're not going to kill off the officer who seems to get gunned down. Yes, a show could pull a shocking twist and kill off what looked like a main character in the pilot to illustrate the life-and-death stakes for these guardians of the streets. The Rookie is not, however, The Shield.

Whatever intensity the pilot has comes from director Liz Friedlander building an occasionally breathless aesthetic around dashboard and uniform cameras. It's probably the most innovative aspect of the series, and there's at least one jittery chase scene through the touristy part of Hollywood Boulevard that is shot and edited into being something exciting even though it, like everything else, relates to a crime we haven't invested in and comes too early in the episode to work as a climax.

Tonally, The Rookie might be a hair darker than you're expecting based on ABC's accentuation of Nathan Fillion smirking and delivering one-liners. There's plenty of that, and the funny stuff is Fillion's clear wheelhouse, but the pilot also wants to stoke serious drama. The blink-and-you-miss-them crimes in the episode include domestic violence, an endangered child locked in a hot car and the aforementioned shootout, yet there's no gravity to any of these situations involving flimsy characters we'll never see again. They're just excuses for John to realize he isn't in rural Pennsylvania anymore and for Fillion to furrow his brow.

The show's voice is tailored around Fillion and his sturdy leading performance and most of the other characters are thin, denying Fillion a worthy foil for back-and-forth banter. Richard T. Jones has surely played this tough-talking authority figure so frequently that he stands out without requiring even a single additional personality detail. Winter enjoys the few minutes he gets to play against-type as a sneering, ostensibly racist authority figure before the pilot starts sympathetically reassuring us that there's more to Bradford than meets the eye. Williamson adds weight to Bishop's position as voice-of-reason in a show that needs somebody to be sensible.

Making some of those supporting characters feel like real people will be a task for post-pilot episodes and, despite a slightly late premiere, ABC has only made the pilot available to critics. With only this foundation, my review is that if you need a little Nathan Fillion in your life, you'd be better off watching Big Mouth. If you require a full Nathan Fillion vehicle, The Rookie is what you've got.

Cast: Nathan Fillion, Alyssa Diaz, Richard T. Jones, Titus Makin, Mercedes Mason, Melissa O’Neil, Afton Williamson, Eric Winter
Creator: Alexi Hawley
Premieres: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)