CBS’ description of The Red Line, an eight-part mini-series about the aftermath of a police shooting in Chicago, makes it sound like an urban layer-cake drama about systemic racism and institutional failure, in the vein of The Wire (or, more accessibly, CBS’ The Good Wife). And to an extent, that’s what it is. But it’s also a series in the mode of This Is Us, complete with massive contrivances central to all of the major story lines, and regular, tying-up-loose-ends montages that are lyrically photographed and set to pop songs guaranteed to make you cry even if you hear them faintly from the next room. There’s quite a bit of clunky narrative hand-holding that feels as if it were foisted on the series via network notes — people describing where they’ve just been and what was discussed in the previous scene, etc.
Turns out The Wire meets This Is Us is a rather satisfying sweet spot. The series taps into it in the final few minutes of the pilot, which airs Sunday night, then starts digging for gold in the second and third episodes, and finds it sooner than you might’ve thought. And the central performances are so strong that you might sign on for the duration, even if, like me, you think that some of the connections between the stories compromise the series’ solid observations about race, class, and politics.
Noah Wyle — star of one of the greatest of all Chicago shows, ER — plays Daniel Calder, a white high-school teacher in an interracial partnership with Harrison Brennan (Corey Reynolds), a black surgeon. Together, they’re raising an adopted black teenager named Jira (Aliyah Royale). The family’s peace is shattered when Harrison is spared death by an armed criminal during a convenience store robbery, only to be shot and killed by a jumpy young rookie patrol officer named Paul Evans (Noel Fisher). Series creators Erica Weiss and Caitlin Parrish and their executive producers (including Greg Berlanti and Ava DuVernay) complicate things immediately by photographing the killing shot from the back, so that it looks like Harrison is leaning over the counter to menace the clerk when he’s really trying to help him with his injuries. Over the next few episodes, The Red Line establishes that Paul, a white man, isn’t an obvious, mustache-twirling racist, but he has absorbed and is subconsciously still enacting certain racist assumptions. That might be what led to the killing shot, and it’s the reason why Daniel’s attempts to get justice through the legal system are thwarted.
Characteristic of DuVernay’s projects as a producer, The Red Line is keen on challenging any expectations and assumptions we might’ve had going in. Evans is mesmerizing in a part that could easily shade over into slimy cartoonishness. As in Netflix’s underappreciated Veena Sud drama Seven Seconds — which likewise revolved around an incident of police misconduct by white patrol officers against a black civilian — the officer at the center of a media firestorm doesn’t instigate the cover-up, and he’s both guilty and uncomfortable from the jump. Most of the show’s overt racial hostility is offloaded onto Paul’s ex-cop brother Jim (Michael Patrick Thornton), who’s in a wheelchair thanks to an incident he believes could have been resolved in his favor if he’d been a bit more eager to pull a trigger.
But even though Paul is passively racist rather than ostentatiously and publicly so, it’s made clear that that’s more than enough racism to end a black man’s life. A later scene where Paul nonviolently resolves an incident involving a white suspect puts the lie to the idea that there was no other possible outcome to that moment in the convenience store. The likelihood that he’ll be allowed to move on with his life after ending someone else’s is at the heart of the show’s intersecting subplots. We’re encouraged to understand the character even as we root for a visibly compromised system to take him down.
This is impressive considering how often broadcast-network dramas endorse the “one bad apple” explanation for police misconduct and corruption. The notion that even white people who criticize racism, or are uncomfortable with it, can still benefit from it is a fairly new idea in this context. And even though it sits uneasily with the more telenovela-esque aspects of the show, it’s always welcome. “This is going to happen to me at some point,” Jiro tells Daniel, referring to a viral video of Paul pulling over a black motorist. “I want someone who knows how it feels, what it’s like.” Later, Paul’s new Latinx partner Diego (Sebastian Sozzi) tells him, “I don’t like being the brown guy they put you with to make you look good for your lawsuit.”
The least compelling story, at least in the early stages, is that of Tia Young (Emayatzy Corinealdi), an African-American risk-management analyst and budding politician. She wants to run for alderman on a more anti-Establishment platform than the older, centrist incumbent (ace character actor Glynn Turman, of The Wire and nearly everything else). Aside from the demographic novelty of casting a black actress in a part that’s often played by an earnest white man, there’s not much in the writing to separate this character from the stereotype of the idealistic young politician who’s trying to shake things up and realizing how hard it is. Luckily the subplot picks up in the second episode when Tia seeks the support of a local power broker (Regina Taylor, whose presence here connects with her great work on the early-’90s drama I’ll Fly Away).
When the series merges the three major plotlines — Daniel and Jiro’s grief and quest for justice, Tia’s decision to use it for political ends, and Paul coming to terms with how he’s benefited from a pricey cover-up and ingrained institutional racism — it’s on the rails. And suddenly you’re in a mind-set where you’re not only excusing the kinds of clichés beloved by broadcast TV, but strangely looking forward to them. (My favorite is the significant person who said they weren’t going to attend an event showing up “unexpectedly” and standing at the back of the auditorium, right when the person who invited them is starting to give an emotional speech.) Wyle gives a career-capping performance here as a man who’s trying to hold it all together even after his life has become a smoking crater. It’s easy to take his brand of unfussy, direct acting for granted, but he’s so moving here — particularly in all the father-daughter scenes with Royale — that it’s impossible not to appreciate all the excellent work he’s done over the decades, and continues to do. (There’s a scene near the end of the pilot that’ll wipe you out no matter how stonehearted you think you are.) All the narrative hand-holding starts to feel like one more aspect of the show’s human touch.