'Training Day': TV Review

Michael Yarish/CBS
Bill Paxton is having fun, but viewers probably won't.

CBS' latest attempt to chase an established brand fails to capture any of the grit or moral complexity of the Denzel Washington film.

Even if you got the whole band back together and asked them to echo the success of Training Day 15 years later, you probably couldn't recreate whatever odd alchemy combined hit-and-miss writer David Ayer with hit-and-miss director Antoine Fuqua and turned the resulting film from a mid-level fall hit into a surprise Oscar winner.

It's no wonder, then, that CBS' latest attempt at pointless and probably doomed brand-mongering fails to deliver a Training Day on par with the pungent, ethically murky original. Even if disappointment was inevitable without Ayer, Fuqua (still at least an executive producer here), Ethan Hawke or Denzel Washington, the steepness of the decline is sadly notable.

Created by Will Beall, CBS' Training Day is set 15 years after the events of the movie, which are contextualized here by Marianne Jean-Baptiste's Deputy Chief Lockhart asking upstanding young detective Kyle Craig (Justin Cornwell) if he's heard of the Alonzo Harris case — even cutaways featuring Washington from the film would have been too expensive — and then giving him the solemn instructions: "I need you to go undercover, stop a rogue cop from becoming the next Alonzo Harris."

Subtle, right?

The rogue cop in question is Bill Paxton's Frank Rourke, who runs an elite team of officers that takes down some of Los Angeles' worst criminals by operating in the gray spaces in the law. Is Rourke racist or does he just not traffic in social niceties? Is he brutal or does he just not coddle crooks? As Frank puts it poorly, "Police work's like sex, Kyle. It's a lot more effective when it isn't pretty." And Frank should know, because he's dating a sex worker, or at least an elite Hollywood madam (Julie Benz). Frank is pretty much constantly self-rationalizing with pearls of hoary police wisdom like, "Better to be judged by 12, than carried by six," and reminding us that we already basically had a Training Day TV series and it was called The Shield and it was great.

It should be at least mentioned that the racial inversion of the main characters is actually a reversion to archetype. Just as Full House flipped the traditional sitcom script by putting men in charge of parenting and then Fuller House reasserted the more stereotypical paradigm, the Training Day movie was at least playing against viewer expectations, but the TV series steers right into the expected "racist white cop" skid.

Directed by Danny Cannon with few visual nods to the movie's style, but lots and lots of orange-tinted filters, Training Day looks pretty, but as a piece of narrative construction, it's pretty dumb. The coincidences pile one upon the other, supported only by bouts of illogic and suspiciously psychic police work. At one point, a shrieking prostitute flees an ambush yelling "This sucks!" and I was inclined to agree. What got me through the pilot was a party scene featuring a baboon and a closing sequence that, despite all the cumbersome exposition beforehand, offered up a reasonable spin of the movie's premise — beyond "In this version, the bad cop is white!" —  to set up the ongoing series.

Here's where things get interesting. Or fail to. You see, inversion aside, Training Day still has to be Kyle's journey. He's the point-of-entry, the character with the possibility for change. Will he get pulled deeper into Frank's world and lose himself? Will he remain true to his own morals and bring Frank down? Or is there some middle ground that would allow Training Day to run 100 episodes, should viewers care? Even if you buy that Frank can be saved, it's Kyle's story. But rather than sending out episodes of a largely serialized show in chronological order, as would benefit critics trying to engage with the ongoing narrative, CBS opted to make the first, fourth and probably seventh episodes available, and my request to get more episodes in order to track the continuity of the show was declined.

So I'm stuck judging Training Day and its characters and performances based on the episodes CBS chose to accentuate, neither of which showed clear or even appreciable improvement or plot progression from the pilot. The fourth episode does include a ballsy and silly fight scene featuring a Yakuza sword and a metal baseball bat, and the seventh episode opens with a strikingly beautiful shot of Kyle shooting a gun as he moves through a downtown Los Angeles fountain, but there end the compliments. A sign of bad curation, both additional episodes sent to critics follow an identical path of Frank flashing back to a close relationship with a CI, now in jeopardy or missing. It's an episode structure that accentuates Frank's devoted father-child relationships with community members and positions him not as evil or irredeemably corrupt, but simply as an old-school lawman, of the classic Western type, with the second episode going so far as to utilize Ricky Nelson's "My Rifle, My Pony and Me" (from Rio Bravo) ahead of an old-fashioned shootout.

Oh, and that fourth episode also includes a Yakuza warrior barking the memorably turgid greeting, "Konnichiwa, ass-clowns," which is a bit like the baboon in the first episode, in that I would never tell you to watch just to experience the moment, but if you're bothering to watch, at least the moment will give you a giggle.

Both later episodes minimize Kyle's arc and its importance to the series, rendering him a wholly reactive figure, so I don't have a clue if Cornwell is really any good. He has great posture, fine screen presence and he remains watchable amidst challenging dialogue, so I'll assume he's fine. I can't be as generous to Frank's two partners in crime/crime-solving, Rebecca (Katrina Law) and Tommy (Drew Van Acker), who have limited exposure in the three episodes I've seen and make no impression. Benz and Lex Scott Davis as Kyle's wife Alyse have one funny dinner scene together in the seventh episode, marking the full extent of their apparent usefulness.

The two additional episodes provided by CBS prove that the network's focus is almost exclusively on Paxton. Other than how it hampers critics trying to do their job, that's not the worst strategy. I won't dispute that the actor is having fun here, but with the help of some toothless depictions of his so-called "bad" side, the show lacks any balance at all. Since the ongoing plotlines are apparently irrelevant, Training Day is a police procedural, which is what CBS viewers probably want, and if you're a fan of police procedurals, you've probably seen dozens of fictional cops who were more crooked than Frank Rourke and still positioned as ostensible heroes, and that's basically what Frank is as well. When Frank is at his most rambunctious and wicked, he says things like, "Can you imagine what it must have been like back then, back before political correctness and what the hell do you call it? Micro-aggressions?" and continuing with CBS' yearlong confusion about millennials, much of the network's core demo will just nod along enthusiastically.

In the movie, Alonzo emphasizes that he's bigger and badder than King Kong, but Frank Rourke's more modest goal is just to prove himself more crotchety than Archie Bunker with a badge. Perhaps the intervening episodes will make him more legitimately and compellingly nefarious or will reinforce that Kyle is an active participant in this story. Nothing in the three episodes I was provided makes me want to bother finding out.

Cast: Bill Paxton, Justin Cornwell, Katrina Law, Drew Van Acker, Lex Scott Davis, Julie Benz, Christina Vidal, Marianne Jean-Baptiste
Creator: Will Beall
Premieres: Thursday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (CBS)