“S.W.A.T.’s” season premiere on Wednesday attempts to acknowledge a deep crisis in the law-enforcement genre. For years, the implicit agreement between TV viewers and the makers of easy-to-watch cop procedurals was that the audience would side with the police, a.k.a. the heroes, even when things didn’t go by the book and someone had to knock some heads. The baddest apples, we reasoned, were eventually dealt with in their own ways. When a TV cop errs, even the simplest shows take a moment to depict his or her inner struggles, past traumas, addictions and heartbreaks. Grievous errors in the line of duty were laced with empathy for a broken officer.
Such a humanizing effect was less frequently applied to the genre’s endless parade of alleged suspects, perps and shady players; to build a show around them, one must look to cable or streaming. And whether we acknowledge it or not, decades of cop shows have shaped our view of arrest, detainment, search, seizure and deadly force — rarely stopping to notice that the characters on the receiving end were always the most expendable. It has also had a lasting effect on how we link race to crime.
“S.W.A.T.” can’t fix that all in one night, but unlike some of its peers, it’s better poised to try. The show depicts life among a tightknit squad of the LAPD’s “Special Weapons and Tactics team,” headed by Sgt. Daniel “Hondo” Harrelson Jr. (Shemar Moore). Although this team is skilled in the latest in high-tech operations, they also excel at old-school violence to take down a surprising number of assailants, cartel members and would-be terrorists.
The show is one of CBS’s many souped-up retreads of the last decade (“MacGyver,” “Magnum P.I.,” “Hawaii Five-O”), but aside from its title and the throwback theme jam, “S.W.A.T.” exists on its own plane. Unsurprisingly for a modern-day network show, Moore, a Black actor, replaced the White Hondo of yore (Steve Forrest).
Co-creators Shawn Ryan (whose previous TV work includes one of FX’s earliest hits, “The Shield”) and Aaron Rahsaan Thomas have clearly taken aims to balance some of TV’s better narrative techniques (long story arcs, deeper characters) within the 43-minute confines of episodic network fare. Is “S.W.A.T” the best show around? No. Is it, however, highly engineered to satisfy specific high-energy/low-impact desires from an audience that watches TV in slack repose? Precisely yes.
Wednesday’s episode, titled “3 Seventeen Year Olds,” builds on Thomas’s desire to weave serious social issues into the action, as various characters react to the Floyd killing and the ensuing protests against systemic racism in police work.
For Hondo and his father, Daniel Sr. (Obba Babatundé), it triggers flashbacks of L.A.’s 1992 riots after the Rodney King verdict. At the time, father and son were at odds over 17-year-old Hondo’s decision to join the Marines instead of go to college.
In the thick of the riots, young Hondo feels drawn to police work, while his father recalls his own experience, at 17, during the 1965 Watts riots — including a frightening encounter with a racist cop. An entrenched dynamic has defined their lives: Hondo finds satisfaction changing the system from within; his father bears the anguish of generations of police abuse. For the Harrelson family, the cycle is repeating, as Darryl (Deshae Frost), the 17-year-old boy that Hondo has taken into his care, tries to reconcile the Black Lives Matter movement with Hondo’s commitment to law enforcement.
With all the flashbacks and monologues, the episode struggles to find the necessary minutes to dig deep. Addicted to format, “S.W.A.T.” can’t resist interrupting things with the team’s frantic attempt to prevent a terrorist attack that has been masterminded by a Latino-run drug cartel in cahoots with a group of Islamic terrorists.
Whatever good intentions “S.W.A.T.” may have had are suddenly competing with lazy stereotypes and the ever-present notion of a make-believe Los Angeles that is chronically and implausibly under assault — and utterly dependent on the SWAT unit’s brute but effective response. If automatic rifles aren’t fired and buildings aren’t exploding, “S.W.A.T.” wouldn’t know what to do with itself.
It’s difficult (and even egregiously corny) to insert a “very special episode” flavor to a show that spends so much of its time in a tactical crouch. Knowing that its viewers aren’t here for a one-hour forum on peaceful community policing, “S.W.A.T.” is nevertheless willing to push in this direction. As in real life, reforming systematic TV’s habits will take takes years to realize. That a show like “S.W.A.T.” is talking about these issues at all is a meaningful step.
If they’re indeed interested in dealing with complicated emotions and long-haul storytelling, “S.W.A.T.” and other cop shows might do well to look at TV’s few but proud family dramas, of which there is but one reigning champion: NBC’s “This Is Us,” which returned two weeks ago with a powerful episode that artfully braided the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement into an achingly real reflection of the gamut of 2020 emotions.
Most striking, as usual, is Sterling K. Brown’s performance as Randall Pearson, a Black man raised in a White family — one he knows and believes to be supportive and loving, notwithstanding a deepening rift with his brother, Kevin (Justin Hartley). The Floyd killing brings Randall to a new threshold of understanding his identity and alienation within the family that raised him.
Five seasons in, “This Is Us” excels at producing tears, but a conversation between Randall and his well-meaning sister, Kate (Chrissy Metz), in the Oct. 27 premiere was one for the ages — this particular cultural moment, especially.
Randall recalled all the incidents of racial injustice that made the news while the Pearson siblings were growing up, and how no one in the family ever talked about it. In their efforts to be colorblind, they had been callously quiet. Randall tells his sister that he’s tired of putting their feelings ahead of his emotional and mental health.
He’s tired, in other words, of being their perfect Black man, and the conduit for their feelings on race. It was a bracingly honest scene from a show that continually pushes its viewers into difficult, yet crucial, conversations.
S.W.A.T. (one hour) airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on CBS.
This Is Us (one hour) airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC.