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Scott D. Pierce: White cop kills black man in CBS drama — but ‘The Red Line’ isn’t what you might expect

(Photo courtesy CBS) Daniel (Noah Wyle, right) confronts the police officer (Noel Fisher) who shot and killed his husband in "The Red Line."

To say that Noah Wyle is emotional about his starring role in “The Red Line” would be an understatement.

“I have never read a piece of material and had it move me like that,” said the former “ER” star. “I can’t even talk about this show without getting upset.”

Wyle stars as Daniel Calder, a high school teacher whose husband, Harrison — an African American doctor — stops to buy milk on his way home and witnesses an armed robbery. Police officer Paul Evans (Noel Fisher) rushes into the store and shoots Harrison dead as he tries to help the cashier, who has been pistol-whipped.

And that, of course, sets off controversy. The police force defends the white cop, and the community demands the cop be fired and charged with murder.

CBS is airing the eight-part drama in two-hour blocks on four consecutive Sundays (8 p.m., Channel 2). It isn’t based on an actual case, but it feels like it could be.

And “The Red Line” is far more complicated than the bare-bones description makes it seem. It’s about race — including the struggle Daniel encounters trying to comfort his adopted, African American daughter, Jira (Aliyah Royale). It’s about family — Jira decides to find her birth mother. It’s about politics — upstart candidate Tia Young (Emayatzy Corinealdi) is running for city council against a longterm incumbent who’s part of the Chicago machine.

It’s about homophobia. It’s about corruption and the lack of justice in the judicial system. It’s about loyalty and the blue line that protects Evans and rejects any criticism of the police force.

The race issues are black and white, but the the characters are drawn in shades of gray. There are cops who do the wrong thing in the aftermath of the shooting, and there are cops who do the right thing. Evans himself is a generally good guy who made a terrible mistake, and he struggles to come to terms with it or acknowledge even to himself what happened.

“I wouldn’t characterize him as a villain at all,” said Fisher, who sees his character as someone who has to learn “how to live with what he’s done and the lives that he’s changed forever.”

“The Red Line” — the title comes from a Chicago train route that traverses the city — is high drama mixed with twists that occasionally veer toward soap opera. But the writers — Chicago playwrights Caitlin Parrish and Erica Weiss — manage to rein the narrative in so that even the less-believable contrivances remain in the realm of the seemingly possible. And, no, it doesn’t turn out the way you might expect.

This is not your average network TV fare. It’s certainly a departure for CBS — a show about crime that isn’t a procedural; a show that raises important issues and makes you think even as it reaches out and pulls you into the narrative.

“We live in tense and divided times,” Weiss said. “Our goal with ‘The Red Line’ was to have an important cultural conversation through the lens of an emotional family drama.”

Executive producer Greg Berlanti — whose shows range from “The Flash,” “Supergirl” and “Riverdale” to “God Friended Me” — said “The Red Line” was important to him and his production team.

“We hope to inspire viewers to examine their assumptions,” he said, “and to see unparalleled value in having empathy for backgrounds and experiences different from their own. ... It’s an enormous opportunity that’s not to be taken lightly.”

It’s an opportunity that Wyle relished.

“I knew from the second I read this script that this was going to be an important show,” Wyle said. “I knew from the second I read it I wanted to be involved in it.”

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