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Let's Talk About ABC's 'The Rookie'

By Dustin Rowles | TV | February 24, 2020 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | February 24, 2020 |


As I’ve written before, I always like to keep one slot in my television viewing schedule for one network hospital drama and one network police procedural, because I like to have a balanced TV diet. New Amsterdam, the surprisingly effective This Is Us of doctor shows, holds one of those slots, and Nathan Fillion’s The Rookie — midway through its second season — has had a strong hold on that cop show slot since Fox’s Lethal Weapon imploded.

I hate to shower too much praise on a cop show that airs on ABC (and sometimes feels like it should air on CBS), but as these types of shows go, The Rookie is very good. That may sound like I’m damning it with faint praise given the competition (uh, Lethal Weapon, NCIS, CSI, *waves arms* all of TV), but showrunner Alexi Hawley (the twin brother of Fargo’s Noah Hawley) has successfully balanced episodic storytelling and serialized character arcs in ways best seen on shows like Justified and Veronica Mars.

For a cop show, it’s got everything: Nathan Fillion (newly ripped for his role in The Eternals); a strong diverse cast (Melissa O’Neil, Alyssa Diaz, Richard T. Jones, Titus Makin Jr.); great recurring cast members (Harold Perrineau, Sarah Shahi, Ali Larter); and a vibe similar to that of TBS’s incredibly good Southland and Noah’s one-season cop show The Unusuals (also with Harold Perrineau). The show is also very good at shipping couples, most recently Bradford and Chen.

Additionally, it did something smart near the end of its first season, although very painful at the time: It killed off a major character (Mercedes Mason). In doing so, it gave the show some real stakes, because we know now that — even though a major death remains unlikely — The Rookie is capable of it.

It made last night’s first episode in 11 weeks all the more intense because when a serial killer, Caleb — who is being controlled by another serial killer inside of prison, Rosalind — abducted Lucy, tattooed her death date on her, and stuffed her in a barrel to let her die, we remembered. A character like Lucy never dies in this situation on network television, and there wasn’t much chance she’d die in this episode, either. But when they pulled her out of the barrel, and she wasn’t breathing, and the scene went mute, in the back of all of our minds was the memory of Captain Andersen last season. Maybe Lucy will die? But then Bradford gave her CPR and resuscitated her, and we all knew what that was really about: Piling a little fan service onto a nearly devasting moment.

Nathan Fillion is the brand name here, but it really is an ensemble (probably in part because Fillion recognized how difficult it was to appear in nearly every scene along with Stana Katic on Castle for all those years). All the cast members get their own individual character arcs, and every character has been both a hero and a goat at one time or another. The romantic storylines are intriguing but never dominate the show; they mix and match the cast members well to keep things fresh, but they also pair them together long enough to ensure they develop a strong repartee. The show also develops some longer mysteries — for instance, the serial killer Rosalind (Annie Wersching) is now teasing that Detective Armstrong (Perrineau) has done something very bad, generating a storyline likely to play out over the rest of the season. (What did he do? Kill his wife? Was he sleeping with Rosalind? Is he secretly one of her cult minions?)

I don’t fully understand the intricacies of writing specifically for network television and all the limitations that it entails (that’s Dan’s lane), but I genuinely believe that The Rookie is a kind of master of its class. How do you write a cop procedural with a liberal point of view and an ensemble cast that appeals to a broad audience who wants to be entertaining but occasionally challenged? The Rookie cannot compete with most of the Sunday night prestige dramas, but it does offer a nice alternative to them. That may be why it returned last night with its highest ratings of the year.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

Header Image Source: ABC