Cop shows are basically a dime a dozen, even in this day and age of Peak TV. So it was something of a surprise to see Nathan Fillion make his post-Castle return to leading man status with The Rookie, a cop show with a hook. The hook being that Fillion’s John Nolan is closer to being “too old for this s***” than he is a fresh-faced recruit, and that designation has painted something of a target on his back, designating him a “walking mid-life crisis.” And yes, there’s plenty of that going on in the series premiere. The pilot episode attempts to hit as many familiar pilot-y notes as possible (introductions are important, after all), but it also manages to surprise, by offering up something more along the lines of a well-balanced ensemble cop drama that just happens to star Nathan Fillion.
What makes The Rookie’s pilot episode stand out is the degree to which it shows instead of tells. Or, rather, the way it gets all its telling out of the way with an opening sequence that favors brevity over long-winded explanations of why Nolan relocates to Los Angeles to be a police officer after a lifetime of construction work and a recently failed marriage. The opening is free from too many extraneous details, it has an admirable “just the facts” quality to it that, in addition to being playful almost to the point of being absurd — Nolan stalls a would-be bank robber by telling him (and the audience) his life story — it also demonstrates a willingness to let the past be the past and to put Nolan’s uncertain future in the driver’s seat.
As demonstrated by his many other roles, whether piloting a space ship or writing novels about his adventures (romantic and otherwise) with a detective, Fillion is more than capable of taking the lead in The Rookie and the series lets him, for the most part. This is Nolan’s story above all else, but as is demonstrated over the course of the first hour, the series is just as interested in the stories of its sizable ensemble as it is in Nolan’s unconventional career trajectory.
Fillon is one of three new recruits to the LAPD. He’s joined by Lucy (Melissa O’Neil), an ambitious, capable cop (who also happens to be in a relationship with Nolan), as well as Jackson West (Titus Makin Jr.), a legacy recruit who is seemingly more experienced than the veterans around him - until he freezes up during a shootout. The recruits are each placed with their own mentor, each with his or her own TV-friendly storyline. Jackson is paired with Angela Lopez (Alyssa Diaz), an affable cop who’s ready to become a detective. Lucy finds herself paired with Tim Bradford (Eric Winter), a brash police officer with a drug-addled wife and a penchant for keeping his charge guessing as to whether or not he’s actually a good cop or emblematic of the systemic problems in police forces across the nation. Finally, Nolan finds himself paired with the highly ambitious Talia Bishop (Afton Williamson), a woman who won’t let a 40-year-old rookie stand in her way of becoming chief of police.
It’s a fine, workable setup, one that doesn’t require too much explanation and also casts a wide storytelling net. The various officer-related storylines are then bolstered by the usual hard-case authority figures, like Sergeant Wade Gray (Richard T. Jones), who takes an immediate dislike to Nolan, figuring him for an old dog who can’t be taught new tricks, and Captain Zoe Anderson (Mercedes Mason, Fear the Walking Dead), who is in Nolan’s corner despite an abundance of reasons not to be. In all, The Rookie’s pilot episode establishes very quickly that it has all the necessary accouterment to be the sort of cop show that can run for years.
How the show’s title and conceit will translate when The Rookie is entering season 5 or beyond remains to be seen, but for now it suggests a fine addition to an otherwise unimpressive fall season. While that’s not exactly glowing praise, The Rookie doesn’t seem to be pushing itself into that territory. Instead, the series exudes a confidence in being a kind of middle-of-the-road broadcast television offering, something that can be appointment television, a show that piles up on the DVR for later binge-watches, or just something you tune into from time to time for a little comfort TV. And in that regard, The Rookie’s greatest strength — in addition to its nerd- and mom-friendly leading man — is an ability to be a little of everything all the time.
Halfway through the premiere, broad tonal shifts become The Rookie’s bread and butter. What begins as a lighthearted story about a middle-aged man starting over and trying to find himself shifts into a more hardened than expected cop story, one where felons with assault rifles get into prolonged shootouts with the police and a confrontation with a mentally ill man puts Nolan and his partner in a race against time to find a toddler presumably locked in a hot car. That’s in addition to a surprisingly graphic domestic violence case that doesn’t end well, and a laughable moment wherein Nolan’s athleticism is called into question when he gets hung up on a chainlink fence pursuing a suspect. The hour shifts between incidents requiring a police response with surprising frequency, never stopping on one case long enough to give its characters time to breathe. That pace also provides plenty of time for the cops’ personalities to intermingle and clash where necessary, creating a more believable (if heightened) world for the show’s characters to interact and grow among one another. Though it’s not a home run, The Rookie is a better-than-expected new series in what has otherwise been a disappointing fall season.
The Rookie continues next Tuesday with ‘Crash Course’ @10pm on ABC.