The formula for police shows is as old as television itself. The police officers are the good guys, and they do whatever they must to get justice — even if that means breaking the rules.
And a high proportion of the bad guys are Black or Hispanic.
But in a world where George Floyd died this summer in police custody and Black Lives Matters became a massive movement, that formula seems not just outdated, but offensive. Everyone who’s turned on a TV in the past year has seen unarmed people — mostly Black or Hispanic people — killed by police.
The producers of the ABC police series “The Rookie” say they’d been trying to break the mold since the show premiered in the fall of 2018. Creator/showrunner Alexi Hawley (who is white) said he intended the series to be “aspirational,” with an “inclusive cast of actors who looked and felt like Los Angeles going out there to do the job the right way.”
But then Floyd was killed, and “It definitely felt like ... we were portraying a version of the police and the LAPD that was alien to many people,” he said. So he knew they’d have to redouble their efforts in Season 3.
“We’re going to tell some pretty rough stories and raw stories,” said executive producer Terence Paul Winter, who is Black. “We’re going to take these characters that we love so much, we’re going to shake them up, and we’re going to make them look at themselves in the mirror and be honest about what’s really going on in policing.”
Diverse voices ‘elevate the show’
That might seem like a big ask for a show that’s centered on the considerable charm of star Nathan Fillion, who plays Officer John Nolan — who gets divorced, has a midlife crisis and joins the Los Angeles Police Department as a 45-year-old rookie.
But Fillion and Eric Winter are the only two white males in the primary cast of the ensemble drama. The others are two Black men (Richard T. Jones and Titus Makin), a Black woman (Mekia Cox), a Hispanic woman (Alyssa Diaz) and a woman of Chinese/Irish descent (Melissa O’Neil).
Creator/showrunner Alexi Hawley, who is white, said he also has staffed the show with diverse producers, writers and directors. And he hired “a crew that looks like America. … All these voices elevate the show. They tell stories that are important, and they bring a reality and authenticity, which is invaluable.”
The Season 3 premiere of “The Rookie” (Sunday, 9 p.m., ABC/Channel 4) picks up where Season 2 left off — Nolan has been framed as dirty by Detective Nick Armstrong (Harold Perrineau), who really is dirty. And the episode does not glorify the trope of the end justifying the means.
“The mindset that bad behavior is OK as long as it produces justice is a cancer,” Sgt. Wade Grey (Jones) says in the episode. “And it’s long past time we treat it as such.”
(Photo courtesy of ABC) Michael Beach guest stars as a police internal affairs official in the Season 3 premiere of "The Rookie."
An LAPD internal affairs officer, Commander Percy West (Michael Beach) makes an impassioned speech about how police officers need to stop looking the other way when their fellow officers break the rules and treating internal affairs investigators as the enemy.
Taking on normalized injustice
In January 2020, the nonprofit advocacy group Color of Change issued a 153-page report titled “Normalizing Injustice,” which reviewed hundreds of episodes of TV crime dramas and found that a large majority of the police officers were white and a large majority of the criminals were people of color.
“We’re not asking for completely positive portrayals of Black people or completely negative portrayals of police officers,” said Arisha Hatch, the group’s vice president. “What we’re actually looking for is a nuanced, complex, more accurate conversation about policing in our communities.”
The “Normalizing Injustice” report also found that fictional police officers “were acting in unconstitutional ways, but they were made into heroes,” said Hatch. “And that has the effect of normalizing what injustice looks like — normalizing unconstitutional behavior.”
That’s another long-standing TV police drama stereotype — along with the idea that any attempt to police the police is disloyal and runs counter to the pursuit of justice.
Hawley said Season 3 of “The Rookie” will “really dig into” the “idea that you can’t truly be a good cop if you’re not doing anything about bad cops.” Because “ultimately, silence is complicity.”
The show will introduce a new training officer for Officer Jackson West (Makin) — Officer Doug Stanton (Brandon Routh). Stanton’s “aggressive” police methods will be “a problem,” Hawley said. “And it forces several of our characters to sort of look at the fact that they let guys like that go before.”
Routh tweeted that he was “honored and excited” to be part of “some timely, honest, and self-reflective storytelling” on “a show willing to meet the current moment and having the bravery to confront challenging issues.”
Shining ‘an honest light’ on policing
The fact that “The Rookie” is not a heavy drama makes all this, perhaps, a more complicated endeavor. Sure, the series includes dramatic storylines, but there’s also action, humor and explorations of the characters’ personal lives. That won’t change.
This image released by ABC shows Nathan Fillion in a scene from "The Rookie." The May 25 killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police has set off protests worldwide and transmitted images of law enforcement that long remained far outside the narratives of crime stories. (Kelsey McNeal/ABC via AP)
“We’re staying true to the show,” Hawley he promised. But “The Rookie” will also focus “honestly” on “the flaws” inside “the LAPD and on policing in general — how hard it is to fire a bad cop, how hard it is to make change within the system. ... And to put the people that we care about on the show in situations where they sort of get an insight into that.”
The producers say they’re committed to an ongoing effort to kick back against TV history.
“We’re not going to just do a special episode,” said Winter, “where we try to work it all out ... and move forward. We’re trying to cover it through every single episode we do this season.
“We’re not going to solve the problems with policing in America. We’re just a TV show. But what we can do is … shine an honest light on what’s going on.”
Fillion, who’s both the star and an executive producer, said he hopes the show is remembered — “and I hope we would be remembered fondly for trying to be responsible.”
As Sgt. Grey says in Sunday’s season premiere, “Big changes are being made moving forward.”