Monday, April 29, 2019

The Red Line, episodes 1 and 2 (Berlanti Productions, Forward Movement, CBS, 2019)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

At 8 p.m. yesterday I settled in to watch The Red Line, the first two episodes of an eight-part mini-series dealing with the police shooting of an unarmed Black man and its consequences. I was interested in seeing this (enough that I bypassed what appeared to be a typical piece of engaging Lifetime sleaze, The Twisted Son, to watch it) partly because of the participation of Selma director Ava DuVernay as one of the executive producers and partly because of the sheer audacity of the theme. As things turned out, it encompassed not only racial divisions but Gay and Trans people as well: the Black man who gets himself killed early on in a convenience store in Chicago is Dr. Harrison Brennan (Corey Reynolds), who’s in a relationship with the white series lead, history teacher Daniel Calder (Noah Wyle) — I’m old enough to remember when an interracial straight couple would have been too controversial to show on screen, let alone an interracial Gay one! — though we never actually see the two men together. We see Dr. Brennan get a text from Daniel asking him if he can please pick up some milk on the way home, and Brennan stops into a convenience store to do just that — only while he’s there another Black men enters the store to rob it at gunpoint. The robber shoots the store’s proprietor and leaves. Brennan goes up to the guy to offer aid, but — apparently not being able to tell one Black person from another — the proprietor starts screaming at him. Just then two police officers answer the call for the robbery and one of them, a young white patrol officer named Paul Evans (Noel Fisher), shoots Brennan in the back, killing him. We then meet the rest of the dramatis personae, including Brennan’s adoptive daughter Jira (Aliyah Royale) whom Calder later co-adopted, and who’s shown traumatized by the incident and beset by the comments of a white schoolmate who thinks she’s being sensitive when she’s just rubbing salt into the wounds; Jira’s birth mom, Tia Young (Emayatzi Corinealdi — if these are their real names the parents of these actors have a lot to answer for), who’s running an insurgent campaign for City Council (or “Board of Aldermen,” as it’s called in Chicago) against an entrenched Black politician named Nathan Gordon (Glynn Turman) — I suspect the writers were thinking of Barack Obama’s early campaign for the Illinois state legislature against a similarly entrenched Black Chicago politician who handed Obama the only election defeat of his career — and Officer Evans’ extended family.

It seems the Evanses are to the Chicago Police Department what the Reagans are to New York’s in the fascinating series Blue Bloods — police work is the family tradition and the Evanses band together to shield Paul from the consequences of the shooting. Unable to get either the state or federal authorities to prosecute Evans, Calder files a $5 million wrongful-death suit against the city (while one of Tia Young’s campaign issues is that Chicago has too many police officers and instead of expanding the force, as Gordon advocates, needs to train them better so they don’t keep shooting unarmed Black people and costing the city money in lawsuit settlements). Meanwhile Jira decides that the only way she’s going to start overcoming the trauma of losing dad #1 is to find her birth mom — only Tia doesn’t want herself to be found, both out of the trauma of having had a child out of wedlock (she’s got an advanced degree in economics — ironically, she’s “married down” and her husband is a Chicago bus driver — but she figures that if people know she had a baby as a teenager she’d be just another Black slut in the eyes of potential voters) and partly due to fear over what the revelation would do to her political career. Daniel is invited to speak about his loss at the big political gala fundraiser held every year for the “LGBTQ” community (goodness, how I hate the ever-expanding set of initials to describe us!) and his daughter originally bails out of attending, only she shows up later with her female-to-male Transgender boyfriend. (What did I tell you? This is definitely not your grandfather’s TV.) The show — or at least these first two episodes of what’s supposed to be an eight-part mini-series — ends at the Queer gala, with Tia Young spotting her daughter across the room and Jira, of course, having no idea her birth mom is in the room.

Meanwhile, there are also tensions involving the Evans family — Paul has an older brother, Jim (Michael Patrick Thornton), who was also a cop until he was wounded in the line of duty and left needing a wheelchair (and who’s more openly and obnoxiously racist than Paul, coming close to actual congratulations that Paul took one of them off the street), and his former partner, a woman, stole the security camera footage of the incident (still recorded on a VHS tape — memo to the writers, this is 2019!) and hid it in her safe, from which Paul retrieves it. Paul also gets assigned to a new partner, a Latino, and in his first traffic stop after the incident Paul stops two Blacks in a car, notices they’re filming him with a cell phone, gets obnoxious and tries to order them out of the car until his saner partner talks him down — and of course the video of this officer who’s already killed one Black man and is intimidating another gets posted on the Internet and “goes viral.” The Red Line overall is a quite moving piece of work (I found myself flashed back to my own loss of a partner during the scene in which Calder memorializes his partner at the gala and so totally loses it he stops reading his speech — I was crying at the scene and I reacted so strongly I got Charles crying as well!), though with some risible moments: Charles said it reminded him of the first three episodes of Wagner’s Ring cycle in there being so few characters and them seemingly all being related to each other (he said he expected to be told that the god Wotan was the father of all of them, and I said, “Or the Black version of Wotan they worshiped in Wakanda”), and the actresses playing Tia, Jira and Tia’s campaign-manager sister looked so dramatically different from each other I wondered if the casting director was so determined to refute the stereotype that all Black people look alike that they cast strikingly different-looking people even as three Black characters who, because they were supposed to be biological relations, one would expect to look similar!