Stay Gold, Golden Boy

I've never been a big fan of cop shows. I acknowledge the powerfully addictive nature of the Law & Order franchise -- I once almost missed a friend's wedding because I wandered into a marathon and just could not find the exit door. But even the times I ingested that show like crack, I never thought it was good. Despite not pulling any punches in the crimes it depicts, even by TV standards it felt sanitized in the way people reacted to tragedy, and inauthentic in the way people talked to each other. I'm using it as an example because everyone knows it, but I've found those flaws endemic to the genre over the years.

But time brings change, as well as better TV, and at the beginning of this year I found myself watching three cop shows -- Justified, which I'm going to say needs no explanation (and let's not split the hair that it's about marshals when we should be focusing on the way Raylan Givens's jeans fit him), and Southland, which I wrote about elsewhere, were the first two. And then there was Golden Boy, which boasted the union of Greg "Damn You" Berlanti, always a personal favorite even if rarely a ratings magnet, and Theo James, whom Downton Abbey viewers will remember as the doomed but dashing Mister Pamuk, who swept into Downton right out of the pages of a high-end bodice-ripper, all flowing shirts and smoldering gazes, before taking Mary's virginity (in a way?) with him on his journey to The Great Beyond. Add to that a solid initial start that prompted CBS to keep the show on Tuesday nights instead of shunting it off to Fridays like it did with Vegas, and Golden Boy seemed, well, golden. Yet going into last night's finale, the news was already out that it was taking an early retirement. What went wrong? I have some thoughts:

The Framing Device.

This was consistently the weakest part of the show -- by far. The conceit was that Walter Clark (James) would, in seven years, be the youngest NY Police Commissioner in history, and every episode began and ended with him telling someone -- reporters, co-workers, a guy who made a wrong turn looking for the bathroom -- about some lesson or significant experience he had as a young detective. The meat of the episode dealt with that lesson -- not always in a by-the-numbers way, to the show's credit -- but the flash-forward always ended up having a "One To Grow On" feel that was hard to take seriously. Adding to the distractions were a ridiculously blue filter that made the "future" look like Manhattan had relocated atop a glacier, and aging up of James that, at least in earlier episodes, made it look like he'd passed seven dog years. Presumably the show thought this made him more credible in his exalted role, but is it too much to ask that in seven years we'll live in a world where it will be okay for the commish to be crazy hot?

The Uneven Cast.

As Clark, James was fine, but not great. Certain of his mannerisms felt actor-y -- his particular way of turning his head every time a conversation took an unwanted turn came to grate -- and his efforts to cover his British accent were not entirely successful (although at least he tried, unlike some people).

But I'm pretty sure everyone who watched the show (we're all having dinner at my house later, so I'll check) would agree that Chi McBride's Don Owen, Clark's partner, was far and away the best thing about the series. As Owen, McBride brought some no-nonsense benefit of experience without falling into the trap of overdoing the world-weariness and cut through "Junior"'s early turns toward cockiness and his ongoing propensity to do one boneheaded thing after another to forge a genuine friendship. In the future, we're to understand that Owen has died, and that's the one development that penetrated the blue haze enough for us to believe that Clark The Elder still carried his partner with him.

Although not in McBride's league, Bonnie Somerville -- and I can't believe I'm saying this; I would have stabbed her through the TV back in Season 1 of The O.C. if the technology had existed -- effectively underplayed Clark's fellow detective Deb McKenzie, when as the only woman cop in the main cast, it would have been extremely easy to overcompensate. (She also nailed the accent.) But Kevin Alejandro, who I thought was fine on Southland, was a problem; he was supposed to be Clark's nemesis, but his real enemy was apparently the scenery, and it was hard to take him seriously when his default facial setting was "chimp with road rage." The station's "Lieut" (Ron Yuan) was a cipher who invariably listened to the squeakiest wheel, while Detective Joe Diaco was there for comic relief, and I'm mostly talking about Holt McCallany's acting. Really, the only other performance of note was given by Eric Morris as the Deputy Mayor, Clark's real and worthy opponent -- this is a man who could give you free Yankees box seats with one hand and use an "I Love New York" pen to stab you in the back with the other. But in the end, not enough people stood out, at least not in a good way. And I have to ding the production on one count for doing it to itself – what struggling show waits until the next-to-last episode to unveil both Dan Hedaya and Michael Madsen? (Although Madsen, as Clark's career-criminal father, couldn't look less like James if he were Asian-American, but that's another story.)

Berlanti's Missing Stamp.

It's hard to know how much personal involvement Greg Berlanti had with the show -- his company produced it, and he was listed as executive producer on ten episodes, but he wasn't the showrunner, nor was he credited as a writer. Either way, he's built a career on the good kind of whimsy; whether it's a dude whose aneurysm makes him hallucinate musical numbers (Eli Stone), families essentially driven crazy by money, with hilarious consequences (Dirty Sexy Money, Brothers And Sisters), or a small town kind of like Twin Peaks if BOB were your harmless chatterbox of a neighbor (Everwood), Berlanti has always had a knack for imbuing his creations with quirks that enhance character rather than substitute for it, with the effect that they're not easily forgotten. There's no such help for the characters on Golden Boy; I'm not saying that everyone secretly had to be into, say, cross-dressing or line-dancing, but some deviation from the expected, even within precinct walls, would have done the show a service.

What's very sad, though, is that the finale was great. When I saw the intro warning that the episode dealt with 9/11, I involuntarily cringed, not out of fear of the subject matter but because of my ingrained expectation that productions just always get it wrong, that they focus on hysterical slo-mo "WON'T SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN" reactions from people who had never even seen the Towers firsthand as entire symphony orchestras swellingly support them. Instead, with Clark desk-bound pending an inquiry into his conduct in a recent shooting, Owen pushed a cold case his way -- a case that happened to be his very first murder investigation, and one that he started early on September 11, 2001. The show took me back to that morning where everything was just clear blue skies and business as usual until the planes hit, and I particularly liked the law-enforcement people's reaction to the second plane's impact, as that's when I recall the certainty of a coordinated attack hitting everyone who could think it through. With really superb effects work -- the shot of Owen shielding a pregnant woman as a wall of dust and debris went by was especially well done -- and a refreshing paucity of manipulative musical cues, the episode did a better job of capturing the mounting horror of the morning than many far more ambitious productions have; not only that, the loss of Owen's partner (Robert John Burke of Gossip Girl and Rescue Me) and mentor let me feel the tangible, indelible impression the whole experience left on Owen, right down to the goodbye voicemail left from inside the WTC.

In the present, Clark's efforts led to the case being solved, and the closure (and promotion) it gave Owen -- this was really McBride's episode, a contributing factor to its excellence -- was satisfying in every way. There were many solid twists and turns, and some great setup for a second season that unfortunately will never happen, but the real point is that if you weren't holding your breath all "I'M…FINE" when Owen, rosary beads in hand, ugly-cried as he tried to get through a prayer for his fallen partner's soul, I'm not sure why you even watch TV.

In the end, the dialogue, acting, and plotting were, overall, serviceable -- often better than that -- and I give the show credit for trying to build arcs and not pretending like a solved case could be forgotten about for eternity. I also appreciated the show's attempts to include family drama without falling into cliché; in particular, the choice to have Clark's addict mother come back into his and his sister's lives and not immediately and completely let them down was refreshing. Ultimately, though, whether it was hampered by network directives or not, the show ended up in a no-man's land between straight procedural and character-driven drama. It wasn't the first show to suffer that fate, and it won't be the last. But suddenly I find myself looking for a new cop show.

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