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'New Amsterdam' Tackles Police Brutality Against Black People, and It Does So Remarkably Well

By Dustin Rowles | TV | October 24, 2018 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | October 24, 2018 |


I’ve been on a big kick this fall to cover more of those shows that “everybody watches,” instead of just those shows that critics love but that fewer people watch (I’m also trying to cover a lot more TV to counter the politics). Among the new fall shows, it’s been something of a mixed bag. The Rookie has replaced Lethal Weapon as my token cop procedural; A Million Little Things has blossomed into a nice drama; and despite being the most successful of the new fall dramas, Manifest is bad. I don’t know if I have ever watched this many episodes of a show as awful as Manifest, but I’m not quitting.

NBC’s New Amsterdam, however, is a show that has really started to grow on me. I haven’t watched a hospital drama since Katherine Heigl left Grey’s Anatomy (because even when I hated her, I still loved her), but Amsterdam has settled into a decent, often remarkably heartfelt series. Some of the problems that plagued the pilot episode still exist (the predictable white-boy acoustic song that plays over the end of every episode), but the characters have come into their own. More importantly, as emphasized repeatedly in last night’s episode, it’s less about the characters and more about the hospital and the stories that come out of it.

Last night’s episode of New Amsterdam,”Cavitation” also surprised me, because it’s a broad drama designed to appeal the same large NBC audience that tunes into This Is Us every week and yet it endeavored to cover police violence against Black people. The central storyline involved a Black kid — maybe 13 or 14 — getting shot by a cop while walking to school. The bullet traveled through him and lodged into the back of another kid’s spine. The story itself was mostly predictable (but effective) — we knew that one of the kids would die, and it was obviously the one we least expected to die, the kid who was laughing on the phone with his friend while the other kid was enduring hours of surgery.

There was a reporter on the scene, however, so the story about the hospital quickly turned into a story about police violence against Black people — actual statistics were rattled off! And they were accurate! — and while the hospital tried to maintain its focus on the patients, the characters themselves — especially the two Black doctors, Dr. Floyd Reynolds and Dr. Helen Sharpe — obviously felt deeply affected by it. Discussing the problems of gun violence in America, Dr. Sharpe (who is British and played wonderfully by Freema Agyeman) says, “That’s something I will never understand about this country.”

Reynolds: The dangers of walking around in brown skin? Sharpe: I never really gave it much thought until I moved here and now I can’t not think about it. Reynolds: Unfortunately, it’s a lesson we learn early. Sharpe: But this is no way to live. Reynolds: No. It’s not. Yet, we do. So, if it takes a million camera phones, and protests, and knees to make that point, so be it.

I’m not suggesting that it’s a groundbreaking conversation, or that what Reynolds says here — or what Dr. Sharpe says later in the episode about the dangers of bringing brown kids into this world — is hugely profound (for that, do watch The Hate U Give). But it was nice to see a big, primetime network drama ignore the political consequences and focus on the humanity of the issue, to put a sympathetic human face with a heartbreaking story to the issue of cops killing Black people. It’s also something that comes to New Amsterdam honestly thanks to a diverse cast, a Black director (Darnell Martin) and a Black writer/producer (Erika Green). If they’d given this episode to Shaun Cassidy — who is, hilariously, another writer on the show — it could have been a disaster, but the show handled it skillfully without coming off as a “very special” episode. And while New Amsterdam may not be a big HBO, FX, Netflix, or AMC drama, it’s worth giving credit where credit is due and acknowledging the good that a primetime medical drama is trying to put in the world.

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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: NBC