I worry about network TV the way you worry about a friend you grew up with who’s going through a hard time.
Once the trailblazers of the medium, the broadcast networks are now the equivalent of MySpace in an Instagram-dominated world. Every day, I get press releases about the premieres of new shows, sometimes on a streaming platform I’ve never even heard of. And I cover TV for a living. For the most part, network TV still follows the traditional September-to-May, 22-episode TV season. The networks are still bound by commercial breaks and Federal Communications Commission regulations. No one ever thinks of them as being innovative or cutting-edge. And CBS, the network your grandparents watch, is considered more staid (and less diverse) than any of its peers. This is, after all, the network that airs three versions of NCIS.
So, no matter what, The Red Line is exactly the kind of risk network TV should be taking. And attracting talent like Ava DuVernay (Queen Sugar, 13th, A Wrinkle in Time) is exactly the kind of step network TV should be making to do so. Why should Netflix have all the fun?
DuVernay and Greg Berlanti (All American, Arrow, Riverdale) are behind this eight-episode series, which will unfold two episodes at a time over four Sunday nights. Since it happens in the opening minutes, it’s not spoiling anything to say that Dr. Harrison Brennan (Corey Reynolds) is on his way home from the hospital when he stops at the corner store for milk. Officer Paul Evans (Noel Fisher) mistakes him for a robber and kills Harrison by shooting him the back. The devoted husband and dad leaves behind his grieving husband, Daniel (Noah Wyle), and daughter, Jira (Aliyah Royale). The title refers to the “L” train line that runs through Chicago, and a white cop shooting a black man in the back puts the whole city on edge.
Tia Young (Emayatzy Corinealdi) is running for alderman, challenging an incumbent who’s entrenched in his ways. He tries to get her to drop out of the race and come work for him. “I’m not interested in joining the old guard,” she tells him. Tia’s connection to Daniel isn’t immediately clear, but savvy TV viewers will be able to connect the dots pretty quickly.
Paul has a brother, Jim (Michael Patrick Thornton), a former cop who now uses a wheelchair, and an unforgiving father (Conor O’Farrell) who’s ready to tear Paul down whenever he gets the chance. Paul’s partner, Vic (Elizabeth Laidlaw), will do anything to protect Paul.
There’s a lot going on in The Red Line. Maybe too much: It reminded me a little bit of the Freeform series The Fosters, in that it sometimes feels as if it’s taking on more identities and perspectives than it can handle. For instance, Jira’s best friend is non-binary. Jira is adopted and searching for her birth mother. Jim was injured on the job. It’s great to have all sorts of families and people represented on television. It’s even better when they’re not a plot point, but instead woven into the fabric of the series. But at times The Red Line is cluttered and clunky.
Still, there’s so much good stuff to focus on that the flaws can be overlooked. Wyle is amazing in the role. He brings depth and nuance to a man who is in deep, deep grief, while also fighting for justice for his husband. Maybe you’ve forgotten, as I have in the years since ER went off the air, how great an actor Wyle is. The Red Line will remind you. Dr. Carter forever!
Royale holds her own against Wyle and is equally great as a teenager searching for answers her dad can’t give her. While clearly something went very wrong in that store, Fisher does a great job of not letting Paul become a one-note villain. And Corinealdi, who is excellent, is a true discovery.
There’s a criminal case against Paul and also a civil suit brought by Daniel. Because, as the police lawyer tells Paul, “you shot a doctor, not a gang banger,” the case is getting lots of attention. “I want Harrison’s life to mean more than money. I want Paul Evans fired,” Daniel says.
The series does a fantastic job of blurring the lines and living comfortably in the grey area. Paul isn’t a terrible person. He actually can be a pretty good cop. Daniel makes some questionable decisions. Tia isn’t always able to balance her political aspirations with helping those she loves. And while certain characters make grievous errors, the police aren’t out-and-out villains. After Tia makes an incendiary speech, one cop tells her, “When politicians tell people not to respect police, you put our lives on the line. People get hurt when we can’t do our job.”
The Red Line is worth taking a ride on.
The Red Line premieres Sunday, April 28 at 8 p.m. on CBS.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .