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TV Review: NYC 22 Has Fresh Characters in a Stale Package

I’m not convinced that the world really needs another hour-long drama about rookie cops on patrol, but if it does, NYC 22 (CBS Sunday 10 p.m.) will suffice. Created by novelist-screenwriter Richard Price (Clockers, Sea of Love, The Wire), the show follows a team of blue-uniformed younglings as they learn to police America’s biggest city.

The pilot introduces the main cast of greenhorns and growly veterans with a sprightly, hip-hop-scored going-to-work montage, then fills in their family history and reveals what led them to police work. The best thing about this series is the way it delivers exposition and fleshes out characters without feeling as though it’s handing the audience a succession of annotated index cards. The dramaturgy is old-school, strictly third person limited: no dream sequences, no narration, no documentary-style onscreen titles, nada, just people doing and saying things while the camera looks on. The worst thing about it is the tediously flat yet glossy photography (a persistent problem on CBS dramas), and its intrusive and mediocre underscoring, which sometimes makes a good (if familiar) series insufferable. During the first couple of episodes, there were points at which the cast was acting its collective ass off in an intense yet fundamentally believable scene, and the music was working so hard to sell the horror, pathos, or poignancy of the moment that the moment’s finer qualities were suffocated.  

The actors compensate, but only up to a point. As Jennifer “White House” Perry, a war veteran, Leelee Sobieski has an intriguingly blank, Barbie-doll-who-can-kill-you intensity. Harold House Moore plays her partner, Jason “Jackpot” Toney, an ex-NBA star whose promising career was sidelined by a bum knee. Jackpot has deep local roots. His community seems to adore and resent him at the same time, for representing both their dreams of success and their pessimistic certainty of failure. (Perry and Jason have palpable chemistry, and they and everyone around them knows it; sexual tension between a handsome black man and a gorgeous blonde white woman isn’t something you see on conservative-friendly CBS every day.)

Stark Sands is Kenny McClaren, a legacy cop who seems more comfortable on the beat than any of his young counterparts. His partner is Ahmad Khan (Tom Reed), a rare cop-show character that we haven’t seen before: a native Afghani whose uniformed presence symbolizes all kinds of unresolved cultural tensions. (I was skeptical that the older cops would nickname him “Kite Runner,” which doesn’t seem like the kind of reference that beat patrolmen would casually make.) There’s a terrific scene in the pilot where Kenny and Ahmad defuse a fight between a couple of hotheaded drivers, and Ahmad speaks to the taxi driver in his native tongue. Later, the cabbie marvels at the “Khan” nameplate on the young cop’s chest, and we may be reminded that such a moment has recurred throughout history. There was probably a similar exchange in 1900 between an Irish pushcart vendor and a cop with “O’Leary” on his badge.

Judy Marte plays Tony Sanchez, a tough Latina from a crime-afflicted family who seems to have become a cop to work through some childhood resentments (a familiar motivation). Her partner Ray Harper (Adam Goldberg) is the oldest rookie on the force, so old that he’s nicknamed “Lazarus” and had to threaten to sue the department to make the academy accept him. We find out early in the pilot that Ray turned to police work after he got downsized from his job as a beat reporter at a big daily newspaper, and that he has better sources than some of the detectives. Like Ahmad’s tightly wound, half-assimilated Afghani, this is a character type we’ve never seen on a cop show before. Goldberg is the right guy to play him. He radiates a somewhat dour kind of intelligence. Price sells the character with realistic details, such as the way Ray compulsively takes notes in a reporter’s notebook even when he doesn’t have to, a vestigial tic from his previous life. Terry Kinney rounds out the cast as a veteran nicknamed Yoda, which is really all you need to know about him.

NYC 22 isn’t the best or worst show you’ll ever see. It’s solid and smart and never embarrasses itself, but its style is just a couple of notches up from CBS’s house standard, by which I mean it’s dull as dirt, and by the second episode, which revolves around a firebombing at a neighborhood drug dealer’s house, it already feels a bit too typical for its own good, lively characterizations notwithstanding. Another problem, for me at least, is that TNT’s Southland is already telling a very similar story in a much rougher and more compelling way. If the two series end up on the air at the same time, I can’t imagine watching both of them.

Photo: CBS