Review: The Red Line 1×1 (US: CBS)

A smart drama about a police shooting that's too even-handed for its own good

Noah Wyle and Aliyah Royale in The Red Line
Noah Wyle and Aliyah Royale in The Red Line ©2018 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

In the US: Sundays, 8/7c, CBS
In the UK: Not yet acquired

Every so often, one of the major US networks decides to do something Important. I don’t know why – the shows always tank in the ratings, no matter how good they are, as has already happened with The Red Line – but they do. Maybe it’s to make a statement about the kind of network they are or want to be. Maybe it’s to suggest to viewers that they don’t need to take out a cable subscription to watch TV that has meaning beyond simple entertainment.

Whatever the reason, they do.

Following on from ABC’s remarkable American Crime, Fox was the last network to try to do something Important, with Shots Fired, in which a black cop shoots an unarmed white guy. Nearly a year later, we now have CBS’s The Red Line, which flips the scenario to something more familiar.

Elizabeth Laidlaw and Noel Fisher in The Red Line
Elizabeth Laidlaw and Noel Fisher in The Red Line. Photo: Elizabeth Morris/CBS ©2018 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

The Red Line

Created by playwright Caitlin Parrish and frequent collaborator Erica Weiss and produced by Wunderkinder Greg Berlanti and Ava DuVernay, The Red Line follows three separate groups of people following a fatal shooting by a white Chicago cop of an unarmed black man (Corey Reynolds).

The first group are Reynolds’ husband, Noah Wyle (ER, The Librarian, Falling Skies), and their adopted daughter Aliyah Royale; the second is the cop who shot Reynolds (Shameless US‘s Noel Fisher) and his co-workers; and the third is Royale’s real mother (Emayatzy Corinealdi) – a rising politician who gave Royale away when she was just a teenager – and her husband (The Musketeers‘ Howard Charles).

Six months after the shooting, Wyle and Royale are still trying to adjust to life without Reynolds and want justice from the system. Fisher, meanwhile, is devastated by the tragedy but thinks he did everything right. Corinedaldi, meanwhile, wants to change the system, particularly the training of police officers, and thinks she’s the person to do it.

Emayatzy Corinealdi and Howard Charles in CBS (US)'s The Red Line
Emayatzy Corinealdi and Howard Charles in CBS (US)’s The Red Line

Red not white

While CBS has something of a rep for being the ‘old white guy’ channel, The Red Line is clearly if not trying to change that, at least make people think it could be something else, too. The Red Line is a very even handed affair, wonderfully acted and highly empathetic. While American Crime was a searing examination of systems and their failures that nevertheless often failed to make you want to watch it, The Red Line is far more accessible.

Here, everyone is likeable, a victim of a situation that they didn’t cause. Wyle and Royale have been bereaved and are struggling to find meaning with Reynolds, both separately and together. It’s not their fault and from their perspective, the cops are the bad guys, the system closing ranks to protect someone who apparently committed murder in cold blood.

Meanwhile, Fisher was just trying to do his job in a near-warzone. He pulled the trigger on potential robber and discovered he’d made a mistake, but his former colleague who didn’t is now in a wheelchair for his troubles – and it could have been worse.

Corinedaldi is going to do her best to train the police better, rather than simply recruit more, to try to reduce fatalities – and the lawsuits against the police department for unlawful killings. But she has to defeat a longtime incumbent first and she has no political connections. And to her, Reynolds’ death could be a way in, as well as something to fight for.

The show’s not without acuity, either. When Royale is in school, a well meaning classmate tells her she needs to abandon her negativity as it’s holding her back. Royale holds up a picture of her bullet-holed father on her smartphone and asks how she can even consider doing that. At the same time, she’s looking to find her birth mother because her surviving parent is white, so how can he understand her cultural issues in the way Reynolds could?

Fortunately, as well as steering clear of being grief-porn, The Red Line also avoids using the connectedness of its characters to force the plot beyond its natural limits and become yet another Crash. I think we’re grateful for that.

The Red Line
Aliyah Royale and Noah Wyle in CBS (US)’s The Red Line

But why?

Yet despite the writing, the perceptiveness and the top acting, with Wyle in particular reminding us in one scene towards the end of why he’s been a star for decades, it’s the show’s own even-handedness that is its Achilles Heel. By not saying anything about the issues, it’s saying nothing.

Watching the first episode, there was a real feeling of “Yes – and?” to proceedings. Yes, death is tragic and police shootings of unarmed black men are a terrifying epidemic in the US, but many have good reason to be afraid. But we know this. So why are you telling us this story? Is it purely to humanise all sides of the issue for a demographic that maybe gets its views from a certain 24-hour news channel? For the rest of us, it all feels a little moot – and an excuse for CBS to try to garner some critics awards for change.

The Red Line is at least far more enjoyable viewing than American Crime and is head and shoulders above the average CBS show, if not the average CBS All Access show. However, it feels both less important and less Important than American Crime, with little to add the conversation and little real drama beyond its initial foundation. I’m pleased to see CBS making it, but will I watch any more of it, to see if it actually comes to some conclusions? I doubt it.