'The Equalizer': TV Review

EQUALIZER Queen Latifah
Michael Greenberg/CBS
Forgettable and formulaic, but you can't quibble with the cast.
2/7/2021

CBS has handed the coveted post-Super Bowl slot to a reboot of the '80s TV series and Antoine Fuqua films, with Queen Latifah in the central role.

In my childhood mind, The Equalizer was defined by the cool elements that it didn't have, elements that Young '80s Dan craved. In a TV landscape populated by crime-fighting vigilantes with no direct ties to legitimate law enforcement, The Equalizer was a show without a talking car, a van full of paramilitary veterans or a snazzy helicopter. Nobody knew kung fu or turned green or had superpowers. He fought for those who couldn't afford help within the system, which pretty much half of TV was doing back in the '80s, but Edward Woodward did it with a British accent.

Even the British accent hasn't proved integral to the franchise, because there were two Equalizer films starring Denzel Washington and, in this new incarnation, the main character is played by Queen Latifah. The franchise has been boiled down to "Independent person with intelligence service training and some talented friends fights crime," which makes it a very, very, very generic star vehicle with a good title.

In the new CBS version, getting a major showcase this weekend after the Super Bowl, the generic aspects are definitely what stand out. Andrew W. Marlowe and Terri Edda Miller's pilot script feels like it could have been a spec script for Castle or Person of Interest or any of a dozen comparable shows. Or just a workable template for almost any broadcast procedural.

Our hero is now Robyn McCall — Washington and Edward Woodward were "Robert" — recently retired from some stealthy corner of the CIA after something went bad in Venezuela, or whatever. Her daughter Delilah (Laya DeLeon Hayes) — cut and paste "generic troubled, but well-intentioned teen" from your procedural script — thinks Robyn is newly retired from some job as a bigwig at a charitable organization. But Robyn isn't sure what she wants to do and she tells as much to her former boss William Bishop (Chris Noth) — cut and paste "generic enigmatic career spy" from your procedural script — when he offers her a job in private security.

When a waitress witnesses a murder and then becomes the primary suspect, Robyn rather arbitrarily decides to help her, running afoul of a billionaire with deep pockets and a team of henchmen. This leads Robyn to seek help from buddies Melody (Liza Lapira), a sniper-turned-bar owner, and her husband Harry (Adam Goldberg), a hacker so powerful he had to fake his own death to avoid government attention.

Equalizing ensues.

Pilot director Liz Friedlander adds a little gloss to the New Jersey and New York locations, but the primary takeaway from the only episode sent to critics is how basic it is. There's nary a twist in the first hour that isn't easily foreseeable, and the dialogue is by-the-numbers tough-guy material; at one point, Robyn barges in on the Russian baddy about to torture the victim-of-the-week and he demands "Who the hell are you?" and she quickly responds "Neighborhood watch," and viewers will be all, "Damn, middling burn, Queen Latifah!"

The script is mostly exposition, oblique references to things that happened on past covert assignments. There is also the occasional scene with Robyn and Delilah or Robyn and her aunt Vi (Lorraine Toussaint) so that you know that she's got a heart. Meanwhile, you get Tory Kittles as the NYPD detective who you know is going to start out distrusting Robyn, but will eventually come to realize that they're on the same side and whatnot.

I referenced Person of Interest earlier, though there's absolutely no indication that The Equalizer is interested in shades of gray. It's forgettably uncomplicated and bland. Credit where credit is due: At least the unremarkable procedural elements in the pilot are executed with proficiency, unlike the premise-introducing first hour of The CW's Walker, Texas Ranger reboot.

What the show has going for it, then, is a really great cast led by Queen Latifah, who gives even the most ecru of kiss-offs some attitude. She's funny, and commands every room she enters, but either she wasn't comfortable with the action or Friedlander misdirected the action such that when Robyn showcases those vaunted military moves, it's all stunt person, no Queen Latifah. Will they find a way to reconceive the show's physical beats to play to the varied gifts of its star? Maybe? Hopefully?

It's a credit to how good all of the actors are that even if nothing they're doing or saying is the least bit memorable, I could generally enjoy watching Queen Latifah bantering with an unusually at-ease Goldberg and with Lapira, clearly getting a kick out of playing a dart-tossing, gun-wielding badass. Noth, scruffy and evasive, and Kittles, able to match Queen Latifah's swagger, are assets as well — and everything is always improved with a dose of Toussaint, even if she has close to nothing to do here.

Unlike the upcoming Clarice, where one could sense the creators trying to use the brand name as a license to venture into some dark and very un-CBS places, The Equalizer feels designed to fit in with the CBS lineup, whether you match it with an NCIS or the network's slate of polished, forgettable Friday retreads. There's a comfortable mediocrity to the formula that should land with many viewers. Critics, on the other hand, are more likely to lament that with this cast, so much more might be possible. And Young Dan still thinks a talking car or high-tech helicopter wouldn't hurt.

Cast: Queen Latifah, Tory Kittles, Adam Goldberg, Liza Lapira, Laya DeLeon Hayes, Lorraine Toussaint, Chris Noth

Creators: Andrew Marlowe and Terri Miller, as based on the original series co-created by Richard Lindheim

Airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS. Premieres after the Super Bowl on February 7.